The Santa Sessions: The Ultimate Christmas Playlist


Sure, Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole are great and all, but there are only so many times you can hear them on your easy-listening station around this time of year. That's why I present to you this big bag of yuletide goodness, 50+ songs that'll have you prancing and dancing around the house in your slippers in between sips of peppermint hot cocoa.

Merry Non-Denominational Holiday to you and your loved ones.


@TheFirstEcho

My Pop Culture Saviors of 2017


2017 was...not the best year.

Amidst all the heartbreaking headlines that bombarded our news feeds, there were moments reminding us that the world isn't a flaming, poo-covered garbage heap. And these moments were brought to us by individuals who had amazing things to offer. These are the men and women who entertained and enlightened when we so desperately needed it. They made a rough year tolerable, comforting us and demonstrating, through their artistry, how we're all going to be okay. They are more than just your standard breakouts of the year. These are my pop culture saviors.

Lena and me at Vulture Festival Los Angeles on November 19, 2017

1. Lena Waithe - She became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, and she's not stopping there (her Showtime drama, The Chi, premieres in January). She first made a splash in the inaugural season of Aziz Ansari's Master of None, playing Dev's gal pal Denise, but TV historians will probably tell you that Lena Waithe officially arrived with the beautifully told Season 2 episode "Thanksgiving," Denise's compelling, 34-minute origin story directed by Melina Matsoukas, co-written by Waithe herself, and guest starring the fabulous Angela Bassett. It was one of 2017's best episodes of television.


2. Ben Platt and the Cast of Dear Evan Hansen - You already know him as the nerdy magician from the Pitch Perfect movies, but Broadway audiences and musical theater geeks will forever see Ben Platt as the titular character in Dear Evan Hansen, this year's Tony winner for Best Musical. His indelible, Tony-winning performance as a socially anxious teen never left a dry eye inside New York's Music Box Theater, and the emotional music (from lyricists Pasek and Paul) will continue to play in the hearts of anyone who has ever "felt forgotten." #YouWillBeFound indeed.


3. Dua Lipa - The London-born Albanian singer-songwriter kicked off 2017 by providing her sultry vocals to Martin Garrix's "Scared to Be Lonely" and is responsible for one of the best pop albums of the year (her self-titled debut), delivering irresistible bangers like "Hotter Than Hell," the Miguel-assisted "Lost In Your Light," and one of summer's few highlights, "New Rules," her biggest hit, thanks in part to its highly rewatchable music video.


4. Hasan Minhaj - He shined on his moving, insightful, and hysterical Netflix special, Homecoming King, and is on the verge of becoming a name everyone will be talking about when it comes to a much-needed voice in comedy. And of course he was the featured speaker a a Trump-free White House Correspondents Dinner, where he became a defender of the press with the following rousing speech: "We are here to talk about the truth. It is 2017, and we are living in the golden age of lying. Now's the time to be a liar, and Donald Trump is liar in chief. And remember, you guys are public enemy number 1. You are his biggest enemy. Journalists, ISIS, normal-length ties. And somehow, you're the bad guys. That's why you gotta keep your foot on the gas."


5. Tobin Low & Kathy Tu - The hosts of Nancy, the extraordinarily produced podcast exploring LGBTQ issues from unique perspectives, are a warm, thoughtful, adorable, and funny pair. They provided a much-needed safe space for the discussion and celebration of otherness -- From a study on the widespread appreciation of The Golden Girls to a shocking and insightful look at Orlando's Pulse nightclub shooting one year later...from a fascinating profile on Oliver Sipple, the man who prevented the assassination of President Gerald Ford, to a revealing dive into the Pentagon's secret "gaggle of gays." Subscribe now before Season 3 kicks off in 2018.

For more men and women, check out my Huffington Post piece HERE.

@TheFirstEcho

Dream Casting the New "Death on the Nile"


Earlier this year, when the trailer for the most recent Murder on the Orient Express remake was dropped, I was hoping that someone at 20th Century Fox would have the foresight to concoct an Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe. After all, this is the world we now live in -- where every property coveted by a major studio must have the potential to be milked for all it's worth. Plus, as a former child raised by an Agatha Christie fan, I am somewhat familiar with this world, and experiencing new renditions of these titles as an adult is exciting.

And now that Kenneth Branagh's version of the Hercule Poirot mystery has been released (and raking in $150 million-and-counting worldwide), it seems like my prayers are being answered. The studio is going ahead with a "sequel" in the form of a remake of Death on the Nile, another death-filled destination about the Belgian detective taking a river cruise in Egypt and coming across another corpse and another group of suspects.

The 1978 film adaptation was a star-studded affair -- Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, oh my! Therefore, this remake needs just as many big names to fill up the marquee...and I have some in mind.

Casting directors, you're welcome.

CHARLIZE THERON as wealthy heiress -- and first murder victim -- Linnet Ridgeway Doyle (originally played by Lois Chiles):


EMILIA CLARKE as Jacqueline de Bellefort (originally played by Mia Farrow):


TOM HIDDLESTON as Simon Doyle (originally played by Simon MacCorkindale):


MAGGIE SMITH as Marie Van Schuyler (originally played by Bette Davis):


TILDA SWINTON as Miss Bowers (originally played by Maggie Smith):


ANGELA BASSETT as Salome Otterbourne (originally played by Angela Lansbury):


SONEQUA MARTIN-GREEN as Rosalie Otterbourne (originally played by Olivia Hussey):


JEFF GOLDBLUM as Colonel Race (originally played by David Niven):


PAUL GIAMATTI as Doctor Bessner (originally played by Jack Warden):


JAVIER BARDEM as Andrew (Andres) Pennington (originally played by George Kennedy):


LILY JAMES as Louise Bourget, Linnet's maid (originally played by Jane Birkin)


BEN WHISHAW as James Ferguson (originally played by Jon Finch):


Thoughts?

@TheFirstEcho

Christina Aguilera's "Stripped" 15 Years Later


It was the highly anticipated album known for transforming a sugary-sweet pop princess into a feisty, cornrowed, assless chaps-wearing wild child.

Stripped, Christina Aguilera's sophomoric follow-up to her self-titled debut, was released this week in 2002. From the lead single and its grimy music video ("Dirrty" -- cue the STD jokes!) to the provocative black-and-white cover, it flaunted its ambition from the get-go. It was the then-21-year-old singer's attempt to break out from the teen pop mold that had its grip on her at the turn of the 21st century. The introductory track made the message abundantly clear: "Sorry you can't define me/ Sorry I break the mold/ Sorry that I speak my mind/ Sorry don't do what I'm told." Behold "Xtina" and her bold, new sounds!

Some critics were quick to dismiss the disc, calling it a kind of schizophrenic mess as it jumped from hip-hop-flavored dance anthems (the aforementioned single, which still gets club play today) to rock-tinged foot stompers ("Fighter") to inspirational ballads ("Beautiful," "Soar," "The Voice Within"). What other artist her age (remember, 21) had the gall to experiment with such range at the time?

Back then, she was damned if she stayed predictable, and she was damned if she moved away from formulaic fodder. And now, in hindsight, we're glad she took the risk, showed off those piercings, and layered on the "hooker" makeup.

For more on this special pop anniversary, check out my latest at Huffington Post HERE.

Obsession of the Week: Scandroid


If you've ever fantasized about being in your own personal Blade Runner or Tron adventure, then I highly recommend listening to the supersonic sounds of Scandroid, "the modern Synthwave project from Detroit-based artist/producer Klayton Celldweller."

His first self-titled album (below) is clearly a musical love letter to 80s New Wave and includes a cover of Tears for Fears's "Shout" (at 16:04) that will tide you over until his second album, Monochrome, drops on October 27.


Also worth trying out is Scandroid's rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," which would normally seem blasphemous, but this cover surprisingly works and is screaming for some rotations at Halloween parties everywhere:


Oh, and did I mention his remake of the Star Wars theme?


@TheFirstEcho

Passport Alert: I'm Going to Los Cabos


Forgive me in advance for the obnoxious travel photos and stories I will inevitably post on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter next month.

I am fortunate enough to have been invited to cover and write about the 2017 Los Cabos International Film Festival down in Mexico while staying at Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf and Spa Resort. I am anticipating four days of food, films, festivities, and overall decadence that will undoubtedly add a few pounds -- just in time for the holidays. Great.

Although...it would be nice to have a suntan in time for Thanksgiving...


@TheFirstEcho

ICYMI: I Was Invited to Talk About 'Roseanne' on a Podcast


Since I'm a TV junkie who's a sucker for nostalgia, I was invited to be a guest on Very Special Television, a podcast that discusses "a very special episode" of a sitcom from the 80s or 90s.

However, due to the recent trend of #MeToo on social media, I realize the sensitive topic discussed within this episode (which was recorded over a week ago) eerily aligns with recent Weinstein-stained headlines. The timing of this episode's release is odd, to say the least.

Since I was the guest, I got to choose the episode. It comes from one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, Roseanne, which dealt with abuse in a way I had never seen on television at the time. It stuck with me as a kid, and 24 years later, it still resonates and holds up as a brilliant piece of television.

Give it a listen, and if you like (despite the bad jokes at the top), subscribe to these guys on iTunes or Soundcloud:


@TheFirstEcho

Nerdgasms of the Week: Gillian Anderson in 'Crooked House' and 'The X-Files'


As I settle into old age ("old" by Los Angeles standards) there are few things that'll make me squeal like a girl being serenaded by Shawn Mendes during her sweet sixteen.

First, there's the trailer for Crooked House. It stars a bunch of veteran actors (Glenn Close, is there no scene you haven't chewed up?), but most notably, it features Gillian Anderson in a dramatic Cleopatra wig trying not to look suspicious while a hottie detective investigates a creepy family in the British countryside. Throw in the words "based on Agatha Christie's most twisted tale" and a title card that basically says, "adapted by the bloke who gave us Downton Abbey," and you have Anglophile catnip. In other words, I. AM. IN.


And then there's the return of The X-Files in which Anderson's Scully, after 25 long years, finally gets up close and personal with some extraterrestrial baddies, kicks ass, takes names, and proceeds to kick more ass -- all accompanied by a nifty cover of The Cranberries' "Zombie."

I was lukewarm on the previous round of this reboot, but I am more cautiously optimistic for these next installments.


@TheFirstEcho