December is usually a pretty dead period for the music industry. Every blog and magazine has already released its “Best of the Year” list. The airwaves are filled with the constant crooning of Christmas music to the exclusion of anything else. And holiday parties leave label employees hung over until January.
But while the music industry goes into hibernation until the New Year, each December usually brings a couple of great surprise records and songs, retroactively rendering every year-end list irrelevant. Last Christmas, Radiohead gave us the best present of all: its light-years-better-than-Sam Smith’s James Bond theme for “Spectre,” complete with the same beautiful and thrilling orchestral arrangements that animated “A Man Shaped Pool.” Two Decembers ago, D’Angelo came out of nowhere and dropped his masterpiece, “The Black Messiah,” in December. And the biggest December surprise of all came in 2013 from Beyoncé, whose self-titled album almost singlehandedly shut down the Internet.
Long story short, we should pay attention to albums that come out in December. Since it’s absurdly cold outside, here are some alcohol pairings to keep you warm while listening to this month’s biggest releases:
Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
Is anyone having a better year than Donald Glover? In the past two weeks alone, Glover won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series and was nominated for the same award for the Golden Globes. His show “Atlanta,” which he created, wrote, directed, and starred in, topped many best-of-2016 lists and also got a nod for Best Musical or Comedy Television Series at the Golden Globes. In October, he was chosen to play a young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo “Star Wars” spinoff.
But perhaps the biggest bombshell is his new record, “Awaken, My Love!” under his Childish Gambino moniker. It’s a mix of D’Angelo’s “The Black Messiah” with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, which is to say, it’s trippy and experimental, but also extremely easy to listen to. Glover debuted the record with an epic live experience in Joshua Tree earlier this year.
Drink pairing: absinthe, with extra wormwood.
Cole – “4 Your Eyez Only”
J. Cole has long been the punching bag of hip-hop. The internet has been merciless since the release of his new album, surprise-released alongside a 40-minute documentary. But in spite of the disapproval, the man who went platinum with no features is now one of music’s biggest stars. The debate about whether J. Cole is a good rapper rages on. But “4 Your Eyez Only,” similar to his double-platinum 2014 breakout record, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” seems trapped between the lyrical immediacy of old school hip-hop and the forward-thinking production of a new wave of rappers.
What to drink while listening to this new record? Well, last week, a Hampton Inn in Sandy, Utah went viral, tweeting, “Is the new J Cole album putting you to sleep early? Stop on by and stay the night with us at the Hampton Inn Sandy!”
The Rolling Stones – “Blue & Lonesome”
When the Rolling Stones hit the stage at Oldchella in October, Mick Jagger joked that he was playing at the “Palm Springs retirement home for genteel English musicians.” But like the Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards, the band simply refuses to die, retirement rumors after almost every tour notwithstanding. So to remind everyone that they’re still kicking, the Rolling Stones released “Blue & Lonesome,” their first studio album since 2005’s “A Bigger Bang.”
The album recalls the band’s early days as a blues rock band. “Blue & Lonesome” is a collection of 11 blues covers, ranging from Holwin’ Wolf to Memphis Slim standards. Lyrically, the songs are about as cliché as it gets, but when your fan base is approaching their mid-to-late 60s and 70s, I guess you can get away with it.
Mick Jagger, a 73-year-old great grandfather, had a child last week with his 30-year-old girlfriend (here’s a handy chart to figure out Jagger’s family tree from CNN. Spoiler: His new baby is already a great uncle!). He famously once said, “There are no absolutes in life – only vodka.”
Drink pairing: a double vodka shot.
Peter Doherty – “Hamburg Demonstrations”
Pete Doherty is one of the most important rock stars Britain has produced this millennium. Without the Libertines, many of your favorite modern British acts would never have existed. In an interview with the A.V. Club from 2007, Alex Turner, lead singer of rock gods Arctic Monkeys, said this of the Libs’ classic “Time For Heroes:” “This is a band that we really liked when we were sort of just getting together… I love that band.”
The Libertines represented the best and worst of rock ‘n’ roll excess – they were unhinged, drugged up, and constantly bickering – which eventually led to the band’s demise in 2004 (though they reunited for a short tour in 2010 and later for an album in 2015). Doherty went on to form Babyshambles, which released modern classic, “Fuck Forever,” in 2007. Two years later, he went solo with “Grace/Wastelands.”
This month, Doherty, now sober following a rehab stint in Thailand for his crack and heroin addictions, released his second solo album, “Hamburg Demonstrations,” a collection of 11 mainly acoustic tracks. He may not be the tabloid king who dated Kate Moss and performs guerrilla gigs at his flat anymore, but he’s still a legendary lyricist who deserves to be heard.
Drink pairing: multiple pints of any English cider, to pretend you’re drinking with Doherty and Amy Winehouse at the Hawley Arms in London’s Camden Town circa 2006.
John Legend – “Darkness and Light”
“They say sing what you know / But I’ve sung what they want / Some folks do what they’re told / But baby this time I won’t,” begins John Legend’s new album, “Darkness and Light.” The lyric is actually pretty similar to his line from Oscar Best Picture-contending film, “La La Land,” when he tells Ryan Gosling’s character, “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”
The music here isn’t as revolutionary or different from Legend’s past work, but it’s definitely more political than his back catalog. It addresses police brutality, prison reform, and the Black Lives Matter movement – just a little different than his wedding staple “All of Me.” In an interview on “The Daily Show” from last week, Legend said, “I wanted to incorporate more of my worldview into the music.”
Though he may be angling his music toward politics, his voice is as silky as ever, deserving of a glass of wine to accompany his beautiful piano playing. Legend actually collaborated with Napa-based Raymond Vineyards on a collection called “LVE” last year, so…
Drink pairing: a glass of LVE Chardonnay to sip on while Legend serenades you.