RCAWith everyone from the cast of A&E reality TV series Duck Dynasty to '80s pop icon Kim Wilde recently venturing into the festive market, here's a look at five of the best new Christmas albums to have been released this year.Leona Lewis – Christmas, With LoveInspired by Phil Spector's classic Wall of Sound, Lewis looks like getting her career back on track with a warm and nostalgic record featuring several new compositions ("One More Sleep," "Mr Right") which fit in comfortably with the more familiar numbers ("Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas") and an astonishing operatic take on "Ave Maria" which proves she’s still the best vocalist ever to emerge from The X-Factor.Kelly Clarkson – Wrapped In RedStamping her mark on the festive season just as effortlessly as her fellow talent show winner, the original American Idol ropes in the likes of Ronnie Dunn, Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood for an affectionate collection of yuletide tunes old and new, including arguably the most uplifting seasonal song since Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" ("Underneath The Tree").Mary J. Blige – A Mary ChristmasGiven her previously fiery reputation, Mary J. Blige doesn't seem like the most obvious candidate to celebrate the season of goodwill. But she acquits herself well on the brilliantly-titled A Mary Christmas, recruiting everyone from Barbra Streisand to Jessie J on a surprisingly traditional but typically soulful affair.Erasure – Snow GlobeConsidering their 'camp as Christmas' reputation, it's a surprise that it’s taken the synth-pop veterans nearly thirty years to commit to a holiday record. Featuring an eerie take on traditional hymn "Gaudete," a bizarre chiptune rendition of Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" and a macabre waltz inspired by a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Snow Globe won't be for everyone. But it's easily the most intriguing Christmas release this year.Tamar Braxton – Winter LoverslandAfter waiting 13 years to follow-up her 2000 debut, Tamar, the youngest Braxton sister has now released her second album in three months with a brief but heartwarming festive effort which showcases her powerhouse vocals in all their glory.
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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Another day, another singing show shakeup. We apparently can’t get through a single month without word of some X Factor/The Voice/American Idol judge going on a rant, quitting, or talking about maybe possibly quitting. This month’s requisite tale comes from The X Factor, where two-year vet and judge L.A. Reid has decided to hang up his quips and go back to his day job (running Epic Records).
Naturally, this story begets another well-worn procedure: contemplating, guessing, and proposing possible replacements for Reid. But The X Factor isn’t losing its famous face, or even its most outspoken judge. The loss of a bona fide industry expert – and one who’s working with current artists like Fiona Apple, Karmin, and Future (and not just UK X Factor flukes like One Direction and Leona Lewis like Cowell’s Syco Music) – is a big one. X Factor would be wise to seek a bit of an upgrade when finding Reid’s replacement: someone who’s got their hands in the music industry as it lives and breathes today, someone who’s cool enough to not feel out of place, knowledgeable enough to balance out Britney Spears’ dazed “amazings,” and someone who is interesting in their own right.
That list kind of narrows the field, but we’ve got a few ideas.
Williams is not only one half of one the most well-known producing teams in music – The Neptunes – he’s also pretty easy on the eyes. Unlike Reid, he’s well-versed in performing for large crowds, thanks to his work with N.E.R.D., and he’s also behind the scenes on new and upcoming albums like Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Miley Cyrus’ upcoming album. He’d be a hard get, but he might actually be good for these contestants.
Lukasz Gottwald may not be an industry “artist” so much as a music industry hit-factory, but he could also bring some much needed credit to the panel. The songwriter and producer is responsible for some of the biggest hits by Ke$ha and Katy Perry, including “Part of Me,” “Tik Tok,” and “We R Who We R” to name a tiny sample of his work. He’s young enough that his presence wouldn’t feel too much like Grandpa Music Industry coming into school the kids, and he clearly knows what sells, so he might even be able to help The X Factor find a commercially successful artist.
Dre’s simply got the time. He just finished producing records for rising star Kendrick Lamar and headlining the Coachella music festival. He may be living the quiet life (or as quiet as it can be in this industry), but that might be why he could actually work. There’s a slight snag in that his expertise lies in the hip hop genre, but then again, this show is also a form of entertainment, and I find it hard to believe anyone wouldn’t be entertained by seeing Dre go head-to-head with two pop stars and a British V-neck enthusiast.
Jay-Z (Yes, it’s a pipe dream. I know. Let me have this moment, please.)
This would never happen. Ever. And if it did, I think most of us would worry about Jay-Z’s health (mental and physical). But if he ever decided to stop sitting courtside with Queen Beyonce at Brooklyn Nets games, stop being friends with the President, and cease being the King of the Music industry, wouldn’t it be just about the best way to take the X Factor to new heights? It would. Of course, Cowell would probably take issue with not being the most famous male on the panel, but he can worry about that when his series starts pulling in higher ratings.
If all else fails, do a complete 180 and go with the eccentric old producer and artist. He’s had enough success to know what he’s talking about – even if his mark on the current industry is practically nonexistent. He’s strange enough that it won’t feel like a stodgy old music exec wielding his ostentatious sense of greater knowledge and if that’s not enough, he’s actually like a second father to Liv Tyler (he signed her birth certificate and acted as her father before she found out Steven Tyler was her actual dad), so it would almost be like keeping up with Idol. Okay, it would be like me trying to keep up with Michael Phelps in a pool, but it would be entertaining.
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[Photo Credit: Brian Dowling/FOX; WENN (2); INF (2); Amy Harris/Rex USA]
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