By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
Anyone who doubts that there's a connection between the sorry state of the music industry and this year's onslaught of Christmas CDs probably still believes in Santa Claus. Then again, record companies do, too.
Why? Holiday recordings generally appeal to consumers in their mid-twenties and older -- a demographic that's not quite as adept at downloading as tweens and teens, whose computer mice are doing plenty of stirring this time of year. And since members of the older generation are more likely to buy seasonal offerings than to snatch them from cyberspace for free, the potential cash infusion could help raise a bottom line that's seldom been lower.
Some of the more than thirty discs detailed below will give listeners a similar lift, while others are gifts that keep on taking. The following is intended to help you tell the difference.
The Gang's All HereAn album dubbed American Idol: The Great Holiday Classics (RCA) would trigger gag reflexes under the best circumstances -- and these aren't the best circumstances. The set begins with a lugubrious trudge through "The First Noel" by Clay Aiken, whose rise to fame is the scariest reality-TV phenomenon this side of Anna Nicole Smith, before busting out more instruments of torture. Consider "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (credited to an Idol "ensemble"), which might even strike octogenarians as too square, and the near-lethal dose of Justin Guarini to be found in "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Okay, the Ruben Studdard stuff is endurable, as is a spare "Oh Holy Night" from Kelly Clarkson that turns up on an extra mini-disc. What's not is the collection as a whole. Better a lump of coal than this noxious goat cluster.
The double-CD Now That's What I Call Christmas! 2 (Capitol) is a trickier proposition. Volumes of the Now That's What I Call Music!series have moved plenty of units for years because of the way they bring together the latest chart-toppers. In contrast, Christmas! 2contains only one song made in 2003 (Aaron Neville's "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear") and just five others from as recently as 2000. The remaining thirty numbers are dominated by oft-compiled favorites from rock-era acts such as Elton John and more distant flashbacks by Louis Armstrong, Burl Ives and so on. Still, Christmas! 2 covers a lot of popular ground in fairly entertaining fashion and delivers a few surprises, like Kylie Minogue's soft-core turn on "Santa Baby." The result is an apparent ripoff that's actually a decent buy. Stop the presses.
Don't start them again for The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas: Evergreen (Time-Life Music). The album's idea of contemporary benchmarks draws largely from pop's axis of evil -- Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, John Denver, etc. Heavenly Christmas (Rhino) is in bed with performers of the same ilk. Compared to John Tesh's "We Three Kings" and Kitaro's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," the Manhattan Transfer kicks ass!
The musicians on It's About Christmas (available from www.itsaboutmusic.com) are more obscure than those mentioned above, and they'll probably stay that way. The compendium is intended to introduce audiences to a bevy of new artists, but only a few stand out -- most prominently Huffamoose, checking in with the amusing "Hanukkah and Christmas Hand in Hand," and Motorbaby, which sees no reason "Silent Night" shouldn't include some distorted guitars. Maybe This Christmas Too? (Nettwerk) manages a more impressive batting average, thanks to a lineup with quite a few alt-rock ringers. Rufus Wainwright's "Spotlight on Christmas" is accessible and charming; Badly Drawn Boy's "Donna & Blitzen" serves as a reminder that his soundtrack to About a Boy, from which it hails, was a hundred times better than the movie of the same name; and the Flaming Lips' "White Christmas" blends loveliness and creepiness into a tasty holiday treat. Eat hearty.
Themes to BeFew thematically linked compilations are as funny as We Wish You a Hairy Christmas (Koch), an aggregation of ditties rendered by '80s hair-metal bands. Granted, some of the humor may be of the unintentional variety, but most of the contributors seem entirely complicit, understanding that their only means of survival at this point is self-satire. Danger Danger's "Naughty Naughty Xmas" is wonderfully moronic, Enuff Z'Nuff's "Happy Holidays" comes across as strangely sincere (which only makes it more hilarious), and Pretty Boy Floyd's "Happy Family" sounds for all the world like a Tenacious D outtake. Aqua Net rules! Just as quirky, and equally enjoyable, is hOMe for the Holidays, starring mixologists who record for the influential Om Records imprint. Kaskade works a relaxed vibe on "Peace on Earth" and "Still Still Still," as do the Pleasant Groove Minstrels throughout a post-modern "What Child Is This." Heady, too, are Colossus's self-explanatory "Charlie Brown Cut Up," Rithma's eccentric "Psycho Jingle Funk," and Casey Nefey's "Psyonics Night," which sends the baby savior on a long, strange trip.
The Reasons for Christmas Project (available at www.reasonsforchristmas.org) takes a jazzy approach to raising funds for Pocono Area Transitional Housing, a Pennsylvania charity targeting the homeless. Overall, the material is rather middling, but a couple of numbers deserve to be remembered -- specifically, a sinuous "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by the David Liebman Group and a "White Christmas" courtesy of frequently undervalued saxman Phil Woods. Even worthier is Merry Blue Christmas (Fuel 2000), a 2002 CD that took its sweet time reaching this particular door. Blues performers have created some of the most enduring seasonal ditties, and many of the finest, from Big Joe Williams's "Christmas Blues" and Johnny Adams's "Silver Bells" to Lowell Fulson's "Lonesome Christmas" and Big Joe Turner's "Christmas Date Blues," are assembled here. Christmas Around the World, from the Putumayo label, isn't as effective, because many of the acts on hand see world music as an extension of easy listening. Pepe Castillo's "Aguinaldo Jíbaro" has some pep, and fruity trumpets enliven "Deck the Hall" by Cuba L.A., and Ramon F. Veloz's "Paz en la Tierra (Joy to the World)." The rest would be dull in any language.