by Nathan Cardiff

I love Christmas music. I give credit to my mom, an avid Christmas music fan, who starts listening to it in October. Thankfully, those of us who tend to wait till December (or at least until it gets ridiculously cold outside) can rejoice and celebrate closer to the holidays with Sam Billen’s compilation You Can Always Give.

Billen brought together musicians (some of whom have never met) from Lawrence, KC, and even Japan, including Andrew Connor, Suzannah Johannes (who appears on three tracks), and Bryyn to collaborate on holiday classics, an original tune, and even a Billen song. Starting with Ryan Pinkston and Dan Billen’s excellent, even dancier cover (with killer guitar added) of “Last Christmas” by Wham!, You Can Always Give swings back and forth from genuine holiday bliss to sincere heartbreaking emotion. But that’s what this time of year is all about, right? Joy and sadness all consumed by the winter beauty. Their version of “Last Christmas” takes the guilty pleasure ballad and gives it a groove that will have you dancing in the snow and maybe crying about love lost.

Connor and Billen’s cover of “Christmas Gift” is a dynamite track with a soft falsetto in the background, sweet guitar, and Connor’s croon shining like a star of wonder. This track may be the prized ornament on the tree. The duets on the record are incredible; lovely harmonies close the distance that these musicians may have had between them. Following up with the high energy “Papa Noel” by Kawehi and Paul Wight was a great choice; it’s a fun track to get you back into the warmth of the holiday. But I’m a sucker for the sad stuff: “Long Way Around the Sea” & “Have Yourself” are wrapped in devastation. Even the killer (possibly a cover of the Mannheim Steamroller version) of “Carol of the Bells” has an new layer of emotion in its wild ride of instruments.

The melancholy “Auld Lang Syne” closes the record just as it closes a year; leaving the fading memory of another holiday past. You Can Always Give lets all of its talent become the reason for the season. It’s tough finding a better gift than this one.

Favorite Tracks: “Last Christmas,” “Christmas Gift,” & “A Merry Little Christmas”

by Nathan Cardiff