Music for the Holidaze

Digging out from a blizzard of seasonal CD releases.

Do folks actually buy new Christmas albums annually? Many must, because each year brings with it a pile of recordings intended to exploit the spending mood in which so many of us find ourselves come December. What follows is an overview of the latest crop, with the prizes and the lumps of coal clearly identified for your shopping convenience.

Predictably, artists of note have leapt into the seasonal disc racket, with the aim either of cashing in on name recognition or of resuscitating a career that's gasping for breath. My favorite in this category is Come On Christmas, by Dwight Yoakam, a country performer who's not afraid to let down his hair (or at least what hair he has left). Among the highlights in this well-chosen package, issued by Reprise Records, are a sloppy, rocking "Run Run Rudolph," a Tex-Mex "Silver Bells," a rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" accented by Al Green-style horns, and a bluesy, insinuating run-through of "Santa Claus Is Back in Town." You'll have fun, fun, fun till your daddy throws the tree in the dumpster. Hill Country Christmas--credited to Willie Nelson and his sister, Bobbie Nelson, and released by Denver-based Finer Arts Records--is considerably more sedate. An original called "El Nino" doesn't cause much of a storm, versions of "Away in a Manger," "Joy to the World," "Silent Night" and "Deck the Halls" are spare and ultra-relaxed, and "Here Comes Santa Claus" is an ostensibly live number that sounds for all the world like Willie singing along with an old recording of Gene Autry, who is duly credited for his contributions. The uninitiated will likely be bored by the platter, but Nelson fans should warm up to it nicely.

I wasn't nearly as captivated by Ray Stevens's latest, Ray Stevens Christmas: Through a Different Window (MCA). The disc is so relentlessly corny that after listening to alleged chuckle-fests like "Guilt for Christmas," "Redneck Christmas," "Xerox Xmas Letter" and "The Annual Office Christmas Party," I found myself in the mood to watch Schindler's List two or three times. Ho Ho Ho, by RuPaul (Rhino), who's parlayed his/her celebrity into a VH1 talk show, is nearly as annoying. Perhaps it's a personal failing, but I wasn't exactly convulsed with laughter while suffering through a rewrite of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in which the star of the show sings, "RuPaul, the red-nosed drag queen." Fortunately, there are a couple of redeeming moments--notably, a convincing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Christmas Train," a balls-to-the-wall disco medley of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and other chestnuts. (Apologies to anyone upset by references to balls and nuts in a RuPaul review.)

Christmas at the Biltmore Estate, by Judy Collins (Elektra), a companion piece to an A&E special, couldn't be more different from the two previous offerings. Bill Clinton's favorite warbler offers extremely orthodox readings of the usual Christmas suspects ("Joy to the World," "What Child Is This?," "The First Noel") accompanied by the Charlotte Children's Choir. Senior citizens will love it, but anyone who doesn't keep his or her teeth in a jar should beware. Turn instead to the Dramatics' A Dramatic Christmas (The Very Best Christmas of All) (Fantasy), an old-style R&B workout by the veteran vocal quintet. Ditties such as "The Days Before Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and "All I Want for Christmas Is My Baby" are ideal for smooching with your sweetie in front of a roaring fire. So track down a mate and a book of matches and get started already.

As for Snowed In (Mercury), by the girly-boys who call themselves Hanson, it's not just for the trio's key demographic (females between the ages of ten and twelve). Isaac, Zachary and Taylor contribute three originals, and although two of them ("At Christmas" and "Christmas Time") are lugubrious, the third, "Everybody Knows the Claus" is a partial rewrite of "MMMBop" that, like much of the rest of the disc, suggests the reincarnation of the DeFranco Family. For many readers, this last sentence might sound like a threat, but it's not meant that way. You boomers still harboring a guilty affection for the Partridge Family, the Brady Bunch and Bobby Sherman should climb off your high horses and join the Hanson parade. By the way, you can probably get their posters at your local Sam Goody outlet.

In last year's Christmas roundup ("Christmas Seasoning," December 12, 1996), I noted that the neo-lounge craze had inspired the issuance of a couple of holiday efforts, even though it wasn't what you'd call the freshest trend. However, it seems to have had some staying power, because another pair of discs that fit into this pigeonhole have just landed. A Christmas Cocktail, by Jaymz Bee and the Royal Jelly Orchestra (Milan), is an attempt by contemporary musicians to capture the magic of vintage smarm, and they do a good job of it--"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" display all the rudiments of the genre. But because the presentation is tongue-in-cheek rather than utterly sincere, much of the allure of the real thing is lost. Far preferable for that very reason is the almost identically titled Christmas Cocktails Part Two (Capitol), a collection that's part of the popular "Ultra-Lounge" series. I was fondest of Lena Horne's persuasive "Jingle All the Way," Jimmy McGriff's organ-heavy "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," Dean Martin's intoxicating "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and the out-of-place-but-still-groovy "Frosty the Snowman" by the Ventures, but even most of the lesser cuts are cheesy in all the right ways. Bottoms up!

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