The Piano Guys have produced musical and video gems that mash up classical themes with pop songs, making their YouTube channel one of the most visited on the planet and bringing the group a recording deal with Sony Masterworks. This self-titled set, their major-label debut, features their amazing ten-handed take on One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful," the recording and video that first vaulted the Piano Guys to international fame.
Steve Leggett, Rovi
The Book of Secrets, the follow-up to 1994's The Mask and Mirror -- there was a Christmas EP, A Winter Garden, released in 1995) -- finds Loreena McKennitt in the same musical vein, mixing Celtic, Spanish, Italian, and new age to create her own distinct sound. The only problem is that she did not seem to progress much during the time between releases. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since she still knows how to write incredible melodies and layer instruments to produce peaceful images. "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" and "Dante's Prayer" are just two prime examples of this. And she continues her practice of setting classic poetry to music (Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman"). Expertly recorded at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios, this CD serves as a travelog of sorts for McKennitt, musically detailing her travels during 1995 and 1996. She provides the musical and lyrical inspirations from each location she visited, utilizing the instruments and sounds she encountered on her travels. Although she may be referred to as the Canadian Enya, McKennitt is definitely her own person, producing music of beauty and warmth.
Aaron Badgley, Rovi
Comprised of 18 tracks culled from the singer/composer’s first three decades, The Very Best of Enya was pieced together by the artist herself, along with longtime collaborators Nicky and Roma Ryan. Luckily, the trio seems enamored by most of the same songs that the general public is, resulting in one of those rare “greatest-hits” collections that goes deep without depriving the listener of the essentials. With tunes like "Orinoco Flow," "Caribbean Blue," and "Book of Days" in the pot and out of the way, it’s easier to appreciate hidden gems like "Cursum Perficio," "Boadicea," "Trains and Winter Rains," and "Anywhere Is." Also notable is the inclusion of "May It Be" and a previously unreleased version of "Aníron (I Desire)," both of which originally appeared on the soundtrack for the first chapter of Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy.
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
Celtic Woman, a Riverdance-inspired PBS phenomena that boasts the talents of several female leads and a whole lot of orchestra and genre instruments like pipes, bodhrans, and fiddles, gives contemporary Celtic the Il Divo treatment on New Journey, a lovely and occasionally over the top collection of familiar melodies and grandiose sentiments that should please both the Celtic new age and the adult alternative crowds. [New Journey is also available in a "Deluxe Edition, Rovi
Released in 1993, Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's second solo album, Facing Future, found a world-wide audience nearly a decade later thanks to its ukulele-led "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" medley appearing on several TV and film soundtracks. Co-produced with Jon de Mello, the follow-up to Ka 'Ano'i includes a combination of Hawaiian-language material, hapa haole tracks, and Jawaiian- (Island reggae) based songs, alongside a cover version of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads."
Jon O'Brien, Rovi
Thanks to its distinct, downright catchy single "Orinoco Flow," which amusingly referenced both her record-company boss Rob Dickins and co-producer Ross Cullum in the lyrics, Enya's second album Watermark established her as the unexpected queen of gentle, Celtic-tinged new age music. To be sure, her success was as much due to marketing a niche audience in later years equally in love with Yanni and Michael Flatley's Irish dancing, but Enya's rarely given a sense of pandering in her work. She does what she does, just as she did before her fame. (Admittedly, avoiding overblown concerts run constantly on PBS hasn't hurt.) Indeed, the subtlety that characterizes her work at her best dominates Watermark, with the lovely title track, her multi-tracked voice gently swooping among the lead piano, and strings like a softly haunting ghost, as fine an example as any. "Orinoco Flow" itself, for all its implicit dramatics, gently charges instead of piling things on, while the organ-led "On Your Shore" feels like a hushed church piece. Elsewhere, meanwhile, Enya lets in a darkness not overly present on The Celts, resulting in work even more appropriate for a moody soundtrack than that album. "Cursum Perficio," with her steady chanting-via-overdub of the title phrase, gets more sweeping and passionate as the song progresses, matched in slightly calmer results with the equally compelling "The Longships." "Storms in Africa," meanwhile, uses drums from Chris Hughes to add to the understated, evocative fire of the song, which certainly lives up to its name. Watermark ends with a fascinating piece, "Na Laetha Geal M'Oige," where fellow Irish modern/traditional fusion artist Davy Spillane adds a gripping, heartbreaking uilleann pipe solo to the otherwise calm synth-based performance. It's a perfect combination of timelessness and technology, an appropriate end to this fine album.
Ned Raggett, Rovi
According to ancient Indian scriptures and saints, the traditional practice of chanting God's name -- be it Krishna, Rama, Ganesh, or another of the numerous deities -- is a tried and true path leading to union with the divine. Kirtan is one of the main forms of this practice, wherein a leader sings out the call and a group echoes with a response. Breath of the Heart is a live recording of Krishna Das in such a setting. Of course, being a westerner, he rounds out the sound with a little more than the customary harmonium and drum of the "motherland," adding Rob McDonald's solid electric bass, Lili Haydn's exquisite though underused violin, and Steve Gorn's mystical bansuri flute, along with various percussion and such. A single kirtan can go on for as long as the leader feels appropriate, although here Krishna Das limits the pieces to not more than 15 minutes or so. That's just enough to get you going before he moves on to the next, which is good for newcomers but perhaps frustrating for true practitioners. For the result is a quick build that doesn't allow you to so much linger in the melody, but rather pulls you along with the rhythm. It's a forgivable consequence when taking his audience into consideration. Nevertheless, with Rick Rubin at the production helm and topnotch musicianship supporting Das' instantly recognizable voice, the combination is a truly enjoyable, and possibly enlightening, offering.
Kelly McCartney, Rovi
Michael Crétu's attempt at fusing everything from easy listening sex music and hip-hop rhythms to centuries-old Gregorian chants couldn't have been more designed to tweak the nose of high art, a joyously crass stab straight at a mainstream, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. The result is something that shouldn't exist, but in its own way results in as much of a cultural scramble and explosion as anything Public Enemy were doing around the same time, crossing over the Euro-disco and new age spheres with style. Credit Crétu for an open ear for whatever works, which is precisely why "Sadeness," the first part of a longer track called "Principles of Lust," turned into a fluke worldwide hit. Snippets of monks invoking the Almighty effortlessly glide in and out of a polite but still strong breakbeat, shimmering, atmospheric synth and flute lines and a Frenchwoman whispering in a way that sounds distinctly more carnal than spiritual (as her gasps for breath elsewhere make clear). Guitar and male vocals add to the album version's try-anything-that-works approach, as do attempts at shuffling jazz beats and horns. If nothing quite equals that prime moment elsewhere on the album, MCMXC A.D. still trips out on the possibilities as it can, right from the opening "Voice of Enigma," inviting all listeners to sit back, relax, and take a gentle trip. Crétu certainly isn't trying to hide anything -- "Callas Went Away" goes right ahead and adds a sample of Maria Callas herself to the chirping birds and soft beats, while elsewhere the flutes, beats, monks, and French voices merrily go about their glossy business. About the only thing missing is the kitchen sink, making the entire album the "MacArthur Park" of its day.
Ned Raggett, Rovi
An expanded three-disc collection that attempts to trump a 1994 double-disc set (Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Songs) by offering virtually every single Elvis recording of a sacred song, Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings accomplishes the mission in its title, but at a hefty price that won't appeal to any but the most obsessive-compulsive fan. Obviously, it includes each track from his three gospel LPs -- 1960's His Hand in Mine, 1967's How Great Thou Art, and 1972's He Touched Me -- plus scattered alternate takes that are previously unreleased. The third disc is padded out with an array of Elvis' sacred recordings that are easily available elsewhere, like the 13 gospel tracks on the raw Million Dollar Quartet session recorded at Sun in 1956, the "Gospel Medley" from his 1968 TV Special, and a version of "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley" originally aired on Ed Sullivan's television show. Though there's no doubt that Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings is a complete set, most Elvis fans will gain little from owning it.
John Bush, Rovi
Songs from the Heart is the fifth offering from the Celtic Woman quintet. With some alternating membership, it sticks close to producer and arranger David Downes' (of "Riverdance" fame) vision/formula: these women sing contemporary and traditional Celtic songs and well-known standards backed by a choir, Celtic folk instruments -- bodhran, fiddle, Uilleann pipes, and bagpipes -- a full backing band, and an orchestra. Lisa Kelly does a tender reading of of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” as an opener, while the entire group participates in an overblown version of “Amazing Grace,” complete with bagpipes. There is a lovely version of the traditional ballad “Nil Sé’n Lá” once more sung by the quintet with killer bodhran playing by Ray Fean. The song selection here is somewhat more eclectic than on previous albums, as evidenced by a complex, spit-shined and polished take on the Phil Collins-penned Disney tune “You’ll Be in My Heart” for an Alex Sharpe solo, the British Isles standard “My Lagan Love,” and even Dvorák’s “Non C’è Più.”
Thom Jurek, Rovi