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Christmas Music Wrap-Up 2007A

  • Russ Breimeier and Andree Farias Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Christmas Music Wrap-Up 2007A

The Christmas spirit is alive and well in the music business this year, with more than twenty new releases in the Christian market—some of them late arrivals from 2006, but we haven't even included everything that's available for 2007. The phrase "something for everyone" has never been more applicable: pop, rock, classical, gospel, country, jazz, and however you want to define Mannheim Steamroller as. It's been a while since we've seen so many big names release Christmas projects within the last year, some releasing albums of all-new material, some releasing collections of old-favorites, and some simply releasing short EPs. It's an amazing testament to the many different styles with which we can celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and the profound impact God's gift of love has had on the world.

Yolanda Adams | Aly & AJ | Jim Brickman | Keith L. Cooper
Diamond Rio | Jars of Clay | Josh Groban | Scott Krippayne
Mandisa | Mannheim Steamroller | Leigh Nash | Bebo Norman
Ginny Owens | Over the Rhine | David Phelps | Relient K
Michael W. Smith | Randy Travis | Jaci Velasquez | Vickie Winans
Bethlehem Skyline | Love's Holiday: A Gospel Christmas
Songs4Worship: Christmas | WoW Gospel Christmas

Yolanda Adams

What a Wonderful Time (Columbia/Integrity)
Soul/gospel pop



Yolanda Adams is a soul diva, so it's no wonder she treats What a Wonderful Time—her second Christmas album and first for Columbia Records—as a soul album. That may disappoint her gospel fanbase, but it's a joy for those who love to see Adams kick back, relax, and do something more befitting her inner urban songstress. Not as carol-oriented as her first yuletide offering, the disc favors original material over traditional numbers, but that's not a problem in light of all the class and elegance on display here—think Anita Baker or early Whitney Houston. "With God" and "Hold On" in particular are noteworthy as proof that even at her most carefree and soulful, Adams doesn't forget what she's made of. What a Wonderful Time, indeed.—Farias



Aly & AJ

Acoustic Hearts of Winter (Hollywood Records)
Pop/rock



This late 2006 release gets my vote for one of the worst titled Christmas albums ever. Besides sounding like a bad Japanese-to-English translation, a third of the 30-minute album isn't even acoustic. "Greatest Time of Year" (from 2006's The Santa Clause 3) is a sprightly rocker descended from '50s/'60s Motown Christmas hits, and the girl-rock of "Not This Year" is inspired by those who struggle to find joy during the holidays. They're pretty good songs nonetheless, and the majority of the remaining 9 tracks are indeed acoustic versions of classic Christmas carols. Though a couple of arrangements feel rushed, it's a surprisingly cross-generational sound that doesn't cater exclusively to the Radio Disney audience. And to their credit, the Michalka sisters live up to their Christian heritage by primarily sticking to hymns, though bouncy versions of "Deck the Halls" and "Let It Snow" are also fun. Clumsy title aside, Aly & AJ's pleasant Christmas album is better than some would expect.—Breimeier



Jim Brickman

Homecoming (SLG Music)
Instrumental piano/easy listening



With its mix of instrumental and vocal, traditional and original, sacred and secular, Jim Brickman's third Christmas release Homecoming feels more or less like a lesser version of its predecessors The Gift (1997) and Peace (2003)—only the song titles and guest vocalists seem to have changed. Former Lonestar vocalist Richie McDonald delivers the sappy power ballad "Coming Home for Christmas," while the late Gerald Levert is featured on a Christmas version of "My Angel" (originally from Brickman's Escape album). It's more or less what you would expect from the pop pianist, and in this case, more of the same isn't as unwelcome as it seems unnecessary. There's ultimately no denying Homecoming makes a warm and pleasant piano-led backdrop for innumerate holiday activities, be they familial, social, romantic, or reflective.—Breimeier



Keith L. Cooper

A Guitar's Carol (Reel Loud Records)
Instrumental guitar pop



This former guitarist for Denver & The Mile High Orchestra is clearly an amazing talent, certainly in the same league as virtuosos like Phil Keaggy and Erik Mongrain. Keith L. Cooper's second solo album (currently only available online and at concerts) matches a wide variety of stylistic interpretations to holiday standards. The more inventive the better, as heard through the Latin feel of "What Child Is This" and the old-world gypsy flavor of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." And less is more with impressive solo acoustic arrangements of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum," a jazzy "We Three Kings," and a sublime rendition of "The First Noel." But the disc falters when it sounds like a Weather Channel soundtrack ("Silent Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"). An inconsistently good effot.—Breimeier



Diamond Rio

A Diamond Rio Christmas: The Star Still Shines (Word/Curb/Warner)
Country/standards



Diamond Rio says they've wanted to make this Christmas album ever since their 1991 debut, and now they're the latest to go inspirational country … well, to some degree at least. The title track is the only new one, but it's an excellent slice of country-pop with a clever chorus about the continuing influence of Christmas/Jesus: "The star still shines after all this time as a light for me and you/It beckons us to seek Him, and wise men still do." After that, it's somewhat disappointing that "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are the only other sacred tracks on the album. Those who don't mind an album that favors standards over hymns will thrill to the authentically countrified arrangements, including "Winter Wonderland," "Sleigh Ride," and the bluegrass of Tex Logan's "Christmas Time's a Comin'." Some renditions are more predictably straightforward than others, but the overall musicianship of Diamond Rio is stunning as they manage to vary their styles enough while remaining true to their sound.? – Breimeier



Josh Groban

Noel (143/Reprise/Warner Records)
Classical/pop/standards



Some vocalists were born to make a Christmas album. Josh Groban's flawless, robust tenor resides somewhere between opera and Broadway pop, perfectly matched with the production talents of David Foster (Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli), the London Symphony Orchestra, and a variety of choirs. The fact that Groban was raised Anglican-Episcopalian might explain why he relies predominantly on sacred Christmas tunes, including less commonly heard classical pieces like "Panis Angelicus" and one of the finest performances of "Ave Maria" you'll hear. Culminating with a reverential "O Come All Ye Faithful" featuring organ and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Noë l is richly saturated with tradition. Yet some of the arrangements are pop enough to keep it interesting, such as an initially acoustic "Angels We Have Heard on High" duet with Brian McKnight, or "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" delivered in 4/4 time with a gospel choir. Still, more stylistic variation would be welcome to stretch Groban's range, and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" will seem either poignant or schmalzty depending on your tolerance of those radio remixes with phone messages (in this case, to and from soldiers in Iraq). But overall, Noë l is sure to remain a Christmas favorite for years to come.—Breimeier



Jars of Clay

Christmas Songs (Gray Matters/Nettwerk)
Alternative pop



Say this much for Jars of Clay's first full-length Christmas album, the first on their Gray Matters record label: it's impressive that the band brought Brit-pop credibility to Paul McCartney's infamously trite "Wonderful Christmastime." And they succeed with other artful covers as well—the Baroque carol "Gabriel's Message" (popularized by Sting), a slick jazz-pop interpretation of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime Is Here," a horn-driven arrangement of "In the Bleak Midwinter," and the thoughtful poetry of "I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day." Jars' originals, however, are more mixed. Their romantic standard "Hibernation Day" and the alt-pop of "Peace Is Here" work well, but "Winter Skin" is repetitive and forgettable, and their reworked "O Little Town of Bethlehem" seems too dark and monotonous. The guys have also remade "Drummer Boy" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," though they did better with the songs on their Drummer Boy EP—why bother revisiting these 12 years later? The greatest flaw with Christmas Songs is the drab and overly reverberated production—which sounds homemade and very different from Jars' previous albums. Christmas Songs has its strong points, but for as many impressed with it, there are surely others who will find it underwhelming.—Breimeier



Scott Krippayne

Christmas (www.scottkrippayne.com)
Piano-based adult contemporary/traditional



Underneath the more routine AC pop conventions of Scott Krippayne beats the heart of a soulful piano man resembling Billy Joel and Harry Connick, Jr. At least that's the sense from this 7-song, 27-minute EP independently released in late 2006, revealing a side of Krippayne we don't hear often enough. "Christmas Time Is Here Again" is an expertly performed piano boogie about the real reason for the season, while "It Wouldn't Be Christmas" is a sentimental love song reminiscent of standards like "I'll Be Home for Christmas." The disc is 100 percent Krippayne, piano and vocals—his accompaniment is smartly handled and the vocal arrangements are truly impressive, particularly the overdubbed gospel parts on "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and an a cappella "The Christmas Song." Thanks to good old-fashioned musicianship on every track, Christmas is near perfect in its simplicity.—Breimeier



Mandisa

Christmas Joy EP (Sparrow/EMI)
Pop



It's Christmas week on American Idol! Well, not exactly, but that's a sort of what Mandisa's 4-song EP feels like. The best is "Christmas Makes Me Cry," a schmaltzy but meaningful duet with Matthew West that's in the spirit of a traditional Idol-styled power ballad. Mandisa does fine with the Motown classic "What Christmas Means to Me" and a nice jazzy rendition of "Joy to the World." But while "O Holy Night" is typically the jewel in every pop-diva's crown, this arrangement feels too busy with its jazz-combo-and-strings arrangement—and Mandisa's counterpart vocalizing often buries the melody. This EP is bundled for free with the True Beauty album for the holiday season, which is annoying for those who already own her debut; they can buy this disc separately for $4. A good disc for anyone that has fallen for Mandisa's Whitney Houston-styled voice, but overall it feels like an inconsequential bonus, not a must-have recording.—Breimeier



Mannheim Steamroller

Christmas Song (American Gramaphone)
Electronic new age/easy listening



To think this perennial favorite was considered fresh and progressive when their first album of contemporized Christmas classics released in 1984. But Mannheim Steamroller's music hasn't aged particularly well, and their first original holiday offering since 2001 is as stale as re-gifted fruitcake. Despite modern advances in keyboard and recording technology, the insistence on using tacky synths and programmed drums that were out-of-date back in 1990 seems more stubborn than nostalgic—and less fluid. Tracks like "Feliz Navidad" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" sound overly mechanical, while a sickeningly computerized "Frosty the Snowman" is enough to clear the room of unwanted Christmas guests. A tedious jazz arrangement of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" overstays its welcome in just 20 seconds. For all the lumps Christian pop takes for sounding behind-the-times, the pop accompaniment for Johnny Mathis ("The Christmas Song") and Olivia Newton-John ("Christmas Lullaby") is much worse. And for what it's worth, this album relies on secular songs (11 of 12) more than their previous efforts. Love it or hate it, everyone should agree Mannheim Steamroller's previous work—though similar—is much better than this.—Breimeier



Leigh Nash

Wishing for This (One Son Records)
Pop/country



Like most Christmas albums, this late 2006 release (available only as a digital download from iTunes) relies primarily on cover songs. But then most of the EP's 7 tracks aren't the usual covers, and Leigh Nash's sweet tone is perfect for crooning Christmas classics while exploring a couple lesser-known country gems. Gabe Dixon makes a suitable duet partner for a delightfully retro sounding "Baby It's Cold Outside." Wham's "This Christmas" is transformed from '80s pop cheese into something more like Sixpence's "Kiss Me," and Dolly Parton's country tearjerker "Hard Candy Christmas" is equally wistful. Even more appealing are renditions of Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," which touches on the hope of the season, and Kate York's "Eternal Gifts," about the things we should really be asking for Christmas: "Santa may bring things that last for a year, but eternal gifts come from the Savior." As an EP, it feels too lightweight to ever turn into a memorable Christmas project, but Wishing for This remains a treat for fans nonetheless. —Breimeier



Bebo Norman

Christmas … From the Realms of Glory (BEC Recordings)
Acoustic pop/folk



Bebo Norman's warm vocal and accessible blend of folk and pop make him an ideal candidate for a Christmas album—he previously collaborated with Ed Cash and Allen Levi for the 1997 independent release Joy, where his acoustic lullaby "Mary's Prayer" originally appeared. Fans of the soaring pop on Norman's 2006 release Between the Dreaming and Coming True will find much to love here, particularly "Come and Worship," an excellent setting of the text from hymn "Angels From the Realms of Glory." There's a lovely flowing pop rendition of "Silver Bells," and he makes "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" slightly upbeat without compromising the song. On the folksier side is his original "Christmas Time Is Here" (with Amy Grant) and an almost Appalachian rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Really, the album's only misstep is altering one familiar melody too many by remaking "Joy to the World" into a jubilant two-step. But kudos for boldly including Jackson Browne's "The Rebel Jesus," challenging Christians to live charitably all-year-round. Based on the brilliant "Born to Die" and the hammered dulcimer "Angels Interlude," From the Realms of Glory could well be the Christmas album Rich Mullins never got around to making.—Breimeier

Ginny Owens

Bring Us Peace (Chick Power Music)
Pop



A late 2006 release, Bring Us Peace represents Ginny Owens' first album since parting ways with Rocketown. Though a tad short—10 tracks, 33 minutes—it ranks among the singer/songwriter's best work, mostly because it's one of the albums that sounds most like her. As might be expected, she's adept at jazzy standards like "The Christmas Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and her epic pop take on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is admirable. But you'll also hear some of the would-be choral teacher emerge with "In the Bleak Midwinter" and her arrangement of "Ave Maria" (based on J.S. Bach and Charles Gounod)—it's a lovely side of Ginny you've never heard before. Additionally, there are four originals, all great, particularly when she indulges her soulful side ("Miracle," "Christmas All the Time"); "Nothin for Christmas" resembles Over the Rhine in feel. And half the proceeds support Owens' own non-profit Fingerprint Initiative. There's something simple, sweet, and freeing about Bring Us Peace, and hopefully it's indicative of the unrestrained direction Ginny may take on her future projects.—Breimeier



Over the Rhine

Snow Angels (Great Speckled Dog)
Jazz-pop/alt-folk/Americana



If you can discern a difference between winter albums, holiday albums, and true Christmas albums, Over the Rhine's second seasonal project (released in late 2006) is a bit of all three. Unlike the moodier atmosphere of 1996's The Darkest Night of the Year, this is a jazzier ode to the varying facets of the season, and with all new tunes, one of the more original Christmas albums. That means no cover songs, aside from a bluesy reinvention of "Jingle Bells" ("One Olive Jingle") and a reworked "O Little Town of Bethlehem" that evolves into a plea for peace on earth ("Little Town"). The husband-wife duo gets romantic with "Snowed in With You" and the more suggestive "North Pole Man," but then "Darlin' Christmas Is Coming" and the prayerful "New Redemption Song" allude to the hope and forgiveness stemming from Jesus' birth. All that, plus a delightful tribute to Vince Guaraldi Trio's Charlie Brown music ("Goodbye Charles"), yet nothing is quite as memorable as their best work; "Snow Angel" comes closest with its sad story of war-torn love thanks to its gorgeous folk-hymn melody. Still, Over the Rhine's musicianship is arresting and beautiful as expected.—Breimeier



David Phelps

One Wintry Night: A David Phelps Christmas (Word/Warner)
Pop



No question that David Phelps has an amazing set of pipes—one of the best in Christian music. It's his creative decisions over recent albums that have divided fans and critics alike. Phelps crosses that line again here by spanning the gamut from the inspirational sounds of 2nd Chapter of Acts and Josh Groban to the bombast of Meatloaf and Queen (sometimes within the same song). Christmas albums are perfect for demonstrating eclecticism and vocal prowess, but there comes a point where the wide variety becomes unfocused and layers-upon-layers of vocalizing overwhelming. Hence why fans expecting the purely classical sound of his first Christmas album Joy, Joy or the Southern gospel of his tenure with Gaither Vocal Band have been frustrated. Phelps is at his best when he doesn't try as hard (e.g. crooning over a light jazz arrangement of "Blue Christmas," delivering "Away in a Manger" in a challenging whispered hush). Instead, he sounds as if he's trying to perform a one-man Christmas show, and ends up overdoing it. His voice may be capable of incredible range and disparate styles, but his album is not.—Breimeier



Relient K

Let It Snow Baby … Let It Reindeer (Gotee Records)
Pop/rock



Hear ye, hear ye fans of Relient K. Knowest thou 10 of the 16 tracks featured on yon "proper" Christmas album from Christian music's favorite punk-pop band previously appeared on their Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand bonus disc in 2003. And their Inspired-by-Narnia track "In Like a Lion (Always Winter)" from 2005 is also included, even though it doth have little to do with Christmas. Thus Let It Snow … is more re-release/rehash than new offering, but the songs were fun before and still fun now, as are the five new tracks. Relient K has an appropriately bratty punk rock take on "I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas," their arrangement of "Sleigh Ride" delightfully mixes jazz with punk, and The Beach Boys would be proud of their version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The band also offers two melancholic originals in step with, well, their previous melancholic originals. A fun "best-of Christmas" disc from Relient K, and great for those who missed Deck the Halls the first time. Other fans would be wise to simply download the new tracks rather than re-buy what they have.—Breimeier



Michael W. Smith

It's a Wonderful Christmas (Reunion/Provident)
Orchestral pop/soundtrack



It's not only a wonderful Christmas, but also Michael W. Smith's 20th album in an illustrious 25-year career. His third holiday project stylistically falls somewhere between 1989's Christmas and 1998's Christmastime (every 9 years, eh?), with a little bit of his 2000 instrumental project Freedom thrown in. The sweeping orchestrations are back, though more schmaltzy with the pop feel of a film soundtrack—the whimsical title cut is a dead ringer for John Williams' contributions to the Harry Potter films. The instrumentation is rich, featuring four choirs and a 65-piece orchestra recorded at London's Abbey Road studios. Nearly half the disc is instrumental, some more Christmas sounding than others—"Song for a King" is a deeply expressive piece for piano and violin, but "A Highland Carol" seems more an excuse to play with bagpipes. The vocal pieces are generally strong (celebratory "Christmas Angels," the mini Advent epic "The Promise"), but Smitty's best is oddly the one he doesn't sing on, the choir-and-orchestra anthem "Sing Noel, Sing Hallelujah." As a whole, Wonderful Christmas is a little too familiar and not as inventive as Christmas was, but the music is crafted with more than enough originality and excellence to make it worthwhile.—Breimeier



Randy Travis

Songs of the Season (Word/Warner)
Country/pop



Since his shift to a Christian music label at the turn of the millennium, the career of Randy Travis has been on the up-and-up. What's helped Travis is his ability to remain authentically country in his faith confessions, a genuineness that continues to be his strongest suit in Songs of the Season, his second seasonal collection in nearly 20 years. Whether interpreting church or pop standards, Travis knows how to turn in a good country performance. More often than not the results are plain beautiful, like his reading of Andrew Peterson's "Labor of Love" or the calm ambiance of "The First Noel." Elsewhere, Travis charms with "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays," disarms with "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and enchants with the toe-tapping "Joy to the World." Lushly orchestrated, meticulously rendered, and reverently sung, Songs of the Season is one of the best Christmas albums this year.—Farias



Jaci Velasquez

Open House Christmas EP (A'postrophe)
Pop



More a treat to bring fans up to speed with her latest happenings than a proper Christmas disc, Jaci Velasquez's sparse Open House Christmas EP has too little going for it to even qualify for stocking stuffer—it's more like a Christmas letter/postcard. The abbreviated offering includes a playful piano-pop take on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," a heavily programmed version of the New Year's traditional "Auld Lang Syne," and the original "Quiet Christmas Night"—a straight-faced ballad that recalls her Unspoken sessions. These are followed by an audio interview, which isn't exactly soul-baring, but still a candid conversation about her divorce, remarriage and upcoming album, tentatively slated for release in Spring '08. — Farias



Vickie Winans

Happy Holidays from Vickie Winans (Destiny Joy)
Gospel-pop/R&B



They don't call Vickie Winans the "hardest-working woman in gospel music" for nothing. Less than a year after leaving Verity Records, she got right back to working on her first Christmas album independently. Without missing a beat, Winans' flamboyant character shows through every track, particularly the Christmas workout "Holiday Jam" and the sappy "Motown in Yotown Family Song"—likable, but ultimately a bit indulgent. The disc retains its caffeinated effect throughout the duration, with Winans' smoky vocals atop a cornucopia of keys, synths, and drum loops. The more the merrier, it seems, with only a handful of times where the singer actually slows down to catch a breath ("A Merry Little Christmas," "My Peace"). Overall, it's an upbeat soundtrack for the post-shopping madness, but not one that will necessarily make you stop and reflect.—Farias



Various Artists

Bethlehem Skyline (Centricity Records)
Pop



The Centricity Records roster presents this likeable (though conventional) collection of Christmas favorites, previously only available for download, now in stores. Downhere offers two timely originals: "Glory to God in the Highest" is a fairly routine Christmas anthem, but "How Many Kings" is a terrific pop song about the unique gift of love expressed through Jesus' birth. Circleslide's "Jesus Is Born" covers familiar territory, bearing the influence of bands like The Choir and Common Children. The rest are reasonably good covers of hymns and standards by Cicrcleslide, Jaime Jamgochian (with a blended worship style), Jason Gray (who delivers a spot-on cover of Pierce Pettis' "Miriam"), and Daniel Kikley (sounding very Josh Groban on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"). All of them come together for a simple-yet-stirring rendition of "O Come All Ye Faithful." A standard Christian pop effort, but still pleasantly done.—Breimeier



Various Artists

Love's Holiday: A Gospel Christmas (Time-Life)
Gospel/R&B



An assemblage of some of the biggest names in R&B and gospel music comprise Love's Holiday: A Gospel Christmas, an album whose title and star power may lead one to believe it's a yuletide collection for couples who happen to be gospel lovers. (Think of it as the intersection between Christmas and Valentine's Day.) Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keys, Luther Vandross, Mary Mary, Gladys Knight, Christina Aguilera, and Vanessa Bell-Armstrong are just some of the names present here. The slick, soulful offerings do not always sound Christmas-y enough—sometimes they feel more like capsules drawn from the '90s urban-pop playbook. But there are ultimately enough slow grooves and joyful jams to entice lovebirds and churchgoers alike.—Farias



Various Artists

Songs4Worship: Christmas (Integrity)
Worshipful pop/R&B



No stranger to worshipful Christmas music, Integrity Music decided to collect a sampling of some of their seasonal offerings over the years and use the Songs 4 Worship brand to aim them at their core consumers. Which is why NewSong's "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" sounds so out of place—it's the one secular pick in the worshipful 2-disc set. Other than that, the assortment is a reverent, peaceful affair with a cast that includes MercyMe, Sara Groves, Don Moen and other notables. Highlights include Israel & New Breed's haunting "Tidings," Paul Baloche's congregational "Offering," and "He Made a Way in a Manger," an original performed by Candi Pearson-Shelton that cleverly plays off the traditional Christmas hymn of similar name. Overall, every song hits the mark as far as bringing the focus to the real reason for the season.—Farias



Various Artists

WoW Gospel Christmas (EMI Gospel)
Gospel-pop



It's not all that common for contemporary gospel artists to record Christmas albums, so it's nice of the WoW franchise to go to the vaults of some of gospel's biggest labels and assemble this two-disc set of highlights. There's plenty to relish in the 30-song collection: CeCe Winans' lovely "Do You Hear What I Hear," Smokie Norful's soulful "O Holy Night," LaShun Pace's funkafied "Go Tell It on the Mountain," Darwin Hobbs' cooler-than-cool "Little Drummer Boy"—and that's only the first disc. Not everything here is Christmas music proper, mind you—Donnie McClurkin's "Agnus Dei," Kurt Carr's "Holy, Holy, Holy," the Tri-City Singers' "In the Presence of a King," and Donald Lawrence's "Lamb" are more Sunday morning in general than Christmas morning in particular, but their worshipfulness definitely works in the context of the Messiah's birth. For a varied gospel collection with the best bang-to-buck ratio, this one fits the bill.—Farias



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