Most boomers grew up in households that were Christmas-album deprived. Their parents had only a couple of seasonal platters (something by the Boston Pops or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, perhaps, or maybe a promotional sampler or two they'd picked up at the neighborhood B.F. Goodrich tire store), and they played them year after year after year. But that's hardly the case today. It's common for Nineties families to own a slew of yuletide discs, and a lot of consumers feel obligated to add to their collections on an annual basis. As a result, executives at labels large and small view holiday recordings as found money--a way to make certain they can afford plenty of champagne on New Year's Eve.
This year, another avalanche of holly-jolly product has descended upon retailers--some of it delightful, much of it deadly. The following survey of more than thirty new discs is intended to help you determine what's worth opening and what should be left under the tree.
The lords of industry have been pushing the swing revival for quite a while now, and they show no signs of stopping. But because the style emphasizes bright, cheerful sounds over the soupy sentimentality that gives so much Christmas music a disagreeable aftertaste, it makes for a good fit with the season. Yule B' Swingin', from Hip-O, Universal's reissue arm, shows why: It's a straight-from-the-vault effort that resurrects some worthy performances. Louis Prima's "What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swinging?" is pleasantly lascivious, Glenn Miller's "Jingle Bells" and Ralph Marterie's "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus" are bouncy and boisterous, and Peggy Lee's "Ring Those Christmas Bells" is flat-out strange: She chirps "Some folks like to hear a Christmas song/But I like Christmas bells that go ding-dong" with the full knowledge that she's making no sense at all. Croon & Swoon: A Classic Christmas (Repeat/Relativity) is less cheeky by comparison thanks to an overly generous serving of cheese. Johnny Mathis's "Winter Wonderland" requires heavy sledding, Mabel Mercer's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" lasts about a week too long, and a little Perry Como goes a long way. But Judy Garland's unexpectedly gloomy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will go over well with members of the Lonely Hearts Club, and Gene Autry's two entries--"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman"--should leave most listeners wishing that he hadn't just left for the last roundup.
Swingin' Christmas, a collection issued by Daddy-O/Royalty Records, a New York-based indie, is something else entirely--an attempt to maximize profits by focusing on all but unknown bands. Five acts are featured here (Heavenly 7, Ron Sunshine & Full Swing, Flipped Fedoras, Swingtips and Set 'Em Up Joe), but they're pretty much interchangeable. The vocalists are all males whose singing tries to bridge the gap between homage and camp; the arrangements opt for showiness over subtlety; and the performances either skirt the edge of novelty or topple over it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course: Flipped Fedoras' up-tempo "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Heavenly 7's deliberately dopey rendering of "The Christmas Song" and Set 'Em Up Joe's practically sincere "Silver Bells" click because of their lack of pretense. But those of you sick to death of punchy brass would be better off with the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan (Mammoth). Although the Zippers are among the primary beneficiaries of the neo-swing breakthrough, they're also musically ambitious, and they demonstrate this quality by way of their song choices here: seven originals, two obscure oldies and just one chestnut ("Sleigh Ride"). "Indian Giver" and "Carolina Christmas" are too jokey to last, but "I'm Coming Home for Christmas" and "Gift of the Magi" are fine country laments, and "A Johnny Ace Christmas" is a bluesy ode to R&B's most famous loser of Russian roulette that acknowledges the twisted side of the season--the one many of us know all too well.
ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS TO BE POPULAR AGAIN
Out-of-vogue performers often find it difficult to convince record companies to finance comeback albums filled with original material, but the big-money types know that many of these celebrities from yesteryear still appeal to aging holiday-disc buyers--the kind who don't care about the latest by Method Man. There's one problem, though: The majority of the limelight-starved have fallen out of favor because the public finally discovered how tedious they were in the first place. That's certainly true of Kenny Loggins, whose CD December, available on Columbia, represents the most extreme form of punishment. Listening to the four offerings written or co-written by Loggins ("The Bells of Christmas," "Angels in the Snow," "On Christmas Morning" and "December") is like slowly drowning in maple syrup, and his lugubrious pillaging of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" strips the enchantment right out of the tune. Guaraldi admirers should turn instead to Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits, a charming new Fantasy Records release that matches two versions of the aforementioned ditty with the "Great Pumpkin Waltz," "Thanksgiving Theme" and oddities such as "Joe Cool" and "Surfin' Snoopy." As for Loggins, I suggest that he be put to work entertaining death row inmates. Betcha it would save the taxpayers a bunch of money--as long as the prisoners were supplied with belts and shoelaces.
Condemned jailbirds who manage to survive a dose of Loggins may not be as lucky when it comes to Donny Osmond's Christmas at Home (Nightstar), a similarly toxic disc. Osmond--who co-hosts a staggeringly dull talk show with sister Marie that has given America a new appreciation for Jerry Springer--occasionally alludes to the shlocky pop that once buttered his bread: For instance, he covers "I've Been Looking for Christmas," co-written by ex-Scandal frontwoman Patty Smythe. But the faux-funky "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?" and a reggae-fied rendition of "Deck the Halls/Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are somewhat less soulful than William F. Buckley, and "My Grown Up Christmas List" could rot teeth from a distance of twenty yards. Go away, little boy.
Merry Christmas...Have a Nice Life!, by Cyndi Lauper (Epic), doesn't achieve such a high degree of awfulness; indeed, it actually contains one memorable song ("Minnie and Santa," a drunken chant in which the Man in Red and a willing woman shag the night away) and several satisfactory ones (specifically, the dumb yet jaunty "Christmas Conga" and the sweet "New Year's Baby [First Lullaby]"). But the rest of the material, much of it by Lauper and longtime collaborator Rob Hyman, is mediocre, and the project as a whole has an air of desperation about it that becomes even more obvious when it's juxtaposed with 12 Songs of Christmas (Private Music), an entertaining session by blues mama Etta James. The accompanying musicians, including pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Billy Higgins and tenor saxophonist Red Holloway, are accomplished but cautious: Too often, they settle for tastefulness when brashness would have been preferable. But James is as sassy as ever, giving "Winter Wonderland" a well-deserved goose, ripping through a sultry "Merry Christmas, Baby" and wringing every drop of juice from "Joy to the World." Clearly, James deserves to be back in the record bins--unlike a few other artists I could mention.
ODDS AND ENDS
Discs that defy categorization can be among the most enjoyable seasonal efforts. But not always. Take Jingle Bells: Swingin' Barnyard Christmas (Oglio), a collection of songs built from animal sounds--meows, woofs, quacks and so on. Don't get me wrong: I thought each tune was funny...for about ten seconds. But after sitting through the lion's share of twelve (count 'em, twelve) editions of "Jingle Bells" as performed by "groups" such as Chicken Feed Bluegrass, Dobbin's Equestrian Orchestra, the Moo-Tones and Electric Sheep, I was ready to kill someone, and I didn't care who. Archbishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama--hell, if Mother Teresa was still around, even she would have needed to be looking over her shoulder.
To Life! Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations (Rhino) is far more tolerable, but it can't match the richness of the heritage it intends to honor. The problem is performer/ producer Jay Levy, who monopolizes 18 of the 27 tracks here (other tracks feature folks such as Theodore Bikel and Nell Carter). While presenting "The Dreydl Song," "Shalom Aleichem" and others, Levy sounds like a children's performer explaining Judaism to a gaggle of preteen goyim on an episode of Sesame Street; he's earnest, wide-eyed and just a little patronizing. He should have emulated Alex Schub, who blurts out "Hop Mayne Homentashen" and "Tayre Malke" like the proudest uncle at a Bar Mitzvah.
Just as unrestrained is The Christmas Attic (Lava/Atlantic), by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whose 1996 salvo Christmas Eve and Other Stories was a left-field smash. Like its predecessor, Attic is an exercise in so-called symphonic rock--meaning that "Boughs of Holly," "The March of the Kings/Hark the Herald Angel" and "Joy of Man's Desire/Angels We Have Heard on High" are characterized by bombastic arrangements, numbskull riffing and the wankiest guitar solos this side of a Deep Purple concert. But rather than leaving it at that, the Orchestra has gilded the lily on Attic by putting such tunes at the service of a rock opera about "the Lord's youngest Angel." The storyline is moronic, and no amount of pomposity can pump life into the mostly lukewarm originals. There's too much Andrew Lloyd Webber and not enough Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush to make it a guilty pleasure.
Gifted former Denverite Tim O'Brien is a prominent participant in A Christmas Heritage (Koch), and his cohorts--banjoist Alison Brown, violinist Darol Anger and guitarist Mike Marshall among them--are just as talented as he is. But for all the skilled instrumentalists on the roster, the album itself is fairly humdrum. Only a snail could describe most of these songs as up-tempo, and far too many of them dissolve into empty prettiness. There are a few mildly stimulating moments here--"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" has a nice, easy feel to it, and the second half of "Shalom Aleichem/Breakin' Up Christmas" shows signs of life--but not nearly enough. Ditto for A Christmas Card, a CD on Atlanta's Southern Tracks Records credited to Michael Dyke and Friends. Several songs have promising titles, but "Ain't Nobody Got the Blues (Down in Christmas Town)" doesn't exactly qualify as down and dirty; "Set the North Pole on Fire" fails to strike any sparks; and "Sexy Little Christmas Thing" is a potentially cute rocker that builds up to nothing much. Dyke himself comes across as a poor man's James Taylor--a description that sends a chill down my spine.
The key to A Jazz Christmas is its subtitle--A Windham Hill Collection. The music may not fall into the new-age bracket, as does so much of the Windham Hill label's inventory, but for the most part, it's jazz in name only. The Topcats' "Celebrate, It's Christmas Time" is smoother than baby shampoo, Paul Horn's "O Little Town of Bethlehem" couldn't be more lachrymose, and "Silent Night" had me fantasizing about dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, the band that performed it. Fortunately, my pacifist side prevailed--and I've got Shirley Caesar to thank for it. On Christmas With Shirley Caesar (Word/Epic), the gospel luminary rides more than her share of warhorses; the stable holds "Ave Maria," "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and the like. But this sister's got pipes, and she opens them wide on a celestial "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," an unexpectedly groovy "Little Drummer Boy" and "What Are You Gonna Name Your Baby?" a first-rate composition by the singer that inspires her to rattle the rafters. I come to praise Caesar, not to bury her.
THE CHRISTMAS GLOBE
Of this year's batch of holiday music from beyond these shores, Noëls Celtiques: Celtic Christmas Music From Brittany (Green Linnet) is the most tony. Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde, directed by Christian Desbordes, doesn't so much sing these songs as wrap them in a blanket of aural majesty. "Misteriou Joaius/ Joyful Mysteries" is an appropriate choice to kick off the proceedings; similarly, "Nedeleg/ Christmas," "An Elez a Gane/The Angels Sang" and the rest are exalted attempts to re-create heaven on earth. If you close your eyes while listening, you might be able to convince yourself that they've succeeded. Delusions are swell, aren't they?
Natty and Nice: A Reggae Christmas (Rhino) is a more mixed bag: It ranges from the heartfelt and hip to the corny and cringeworthy. Bolivar's "Rudolf the Reggae Reindeer" and "Wish You a Merry Christmas" by Jacob Miller--who says the word "irie" about 500 times during a 3:51-minute span--are condescending sops to the wannabe crowd, and N.T. Washington's "Happiness" and Washington & Clarke's "Happy Christmas" are minor variations on the same tepid cut. But Toots & the Maytals' "Happy Christmas," the Kingstonians' "Merry Christmas" and the Ethiopians' "Ding Dong Bell" are comely, and "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (The Crossover/Radio Mix)," by Lee Perry, with assistance from vocalist Sandra Robinson, is sinuous and seductive. To put it another way, a fine EP is hiding inside this long-player. Too bad the same can't be said of Yellowman's A Very, Very Yellow Christmas (RAS). This veteran reggaemon can be an amusing presence, but here he lazily performs familiar ditties rewritten to accommodate repeated references to himself: "Yellowman Is Coming to Town," "Children Saw Mommy Kissing Yellowman" and "Yellow Christmas" are typical. "African Christmas" and "Santa Claus Never Comes to the Ghetto" are passable, but by the time I reached the ultra-dippy "Yellowman Rock," sung to the melody of "Jingle Bell Rock," I was seeing red.
GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
They may be dead, but they haven't been forgotten. Witness The Voice of Christmas: The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA), in which Bing Crosby gets the A-list treatment. These two discs, accompanied by well-annotated liner notes, find Der Bingle lending his dulcet tones to the usual assortment of Christmas classics, including four interpretations of both "White Christmas" and "Silent Night." But the presence of several oddball offerings helps compensate for such redundancies. Crosby climbs to the bottom of his croon during "O Fir Tree Dark," sounds happily sozzled on "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter," accompanies the Andrews Sisters on the goofy "Poppa Santa Claus," seems about as Hawaiian as James Earl Jones on "Mele Kalikimaka," and oozes so much charm while warbling "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost" alongside Peggy Lee that it's almost impossible to imagine him beating the hell out of his son Gary. Unless you try, that is.
The three Wilson lads (whose padre slapped them around, too) are at the center of the Beach Boys' Ultimate Christmas (Capitol), another archivist's special. The average Joe and Jane may not be all that thrilled by the inclusion of three run-throughs of "Little Saint Nick," but collectors will be over the moon to discover seven previously unreleased tracks intended for a Christmas album that was shelved in 1977. There are no genuine treasures among these rarities, and "Morning Christmas," with lead vocals by drummer Dennis, is practically unlistenable. But "Winter Symphony," by Brian, the sole surviving Wilson brother, is an intriguingly arranged curio, and "Frosty the Snowman," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Auld Lang Syne" and other volumes from the Beach Boys' holiday library haven't aged a single second in more than thirty years.
Dean Martin's Making Spirits Bright (Capitol) is just as diverting, and his insincerity is the reason. Dino obviously regarded performing such material as a silly necessity of his fame, and the raised-eyebrow readings and shrugged-off intonations that resulted make the tunes feel more cool than corny. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" could be a love song to a brandy snifter the way he sings it; "Baby, It's Cold Outside" epitomizes the winky-winky way that the Fifties-era media dealt with sex; "The Christmas Blues" makes it clear he doesn't suffer from the malady; and "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" is Rat Pack-ready: Martin slips into a mock-German accent at one point and later refers to "Rudy, the red-beaked reindeer." Keep 'em coming, bartender.
CHRISTMAS STAR POWER
For artists in the prime of their careers, a holiday disc can be a way of staying in the public eye while making more than a few bucks in the process. Ask Celine Dion, whose CD These Are Special Times (550 Music/Epic) debuted in the top five on the Billboard album-sales chart. As can be expected from a piece primarily supervised by David Foster, who evidently believes that there's no production like over-production, the music on the platter not only embraces cliches, but hammers at them with the intensity of Mike Tyson when he's got the scent of blood in his nostrils. By the end of "O Holy Night," the first song here, Dion's wailing is almost metaphysically histrionic (I was afraid the books on my shelves would start toppling onto my head before it was over), and "Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)" allows her to out-shout a choir roughly the size of Beijing. Her duets are just as fevered. During "I'm Your Angel," she and R. Kelly battle it out to determine which of them is more domineering (she wins in a walk), and "The Prayer," with opera belter Andrea Bocelli, is genuinely frightening; it's a miracle that there were no casualties while it was being recorded. Dion takes a quieter (for her) approach to the other selections, which means that they're not very interesting. If she's not killing someone loudly with her songs, what good is she?
On the opposite side of the volume scale is Babyface's Christmas With Babyface (Epic), which tries to leave listeners stirred but not shaken. The super-producer performs just one of his own compositions (the so-gentle-it-almost-ceases-to-exist "You Were There"), and he doesn't knock himself out searching for fresh tunes or new ways to play them. (His one curveball--"The Little Drummer Boy" is done reggae style--misses the strike zone.) But if his by-the-numbers delivery of "Winter Wonderland," "Sleigh Ride" and the rest inoculates the album against surprises, it makes it thoroughly listenable. And in this genre, that's saying something. Even safer is Vince Gill's Breath of Heaven (MCA). Gill may be marketed as a country singer, but his music frequently has about as much to do with C&W tradition as something by Motsrhead, and that's certainly the case here. The background music for tracks such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" is provided not by a down-home combo but by Patrick Williams and his Orchestra, which tends to overwhelm Gill's somewhat nondescript tenor. Next time, Vince, hire somebody to play pedal steel.
On Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Columbia), singer Shawn Colvin doesn't kick up her heels, either: This is a collection concerned with sober-sided reflection, not slurping eggnog and luring your beloved beneath the mistletoe. These constraints make for a rather melancholy album--the first song is "In the Bleak Mid-Winter"--but Colvin's gorgeous voice and good taste guarantee a handful of lovely moments. I was particularly taken with the simple, radiant "Rocking," the stark "All Through the Night" and "Seal Lullaby," derived from a passage in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. I was nodding by the end of the CD, but I suppose that's the point.
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By contrast, the goal of 'N Sync's Home for Christmas (RCA) is to dampen the drawers of seventeen-and-under girls. I was hoping for some of the exploitative panache displayed by Snowed In, a 1997 Christmas entry by Hanson, but only "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" and the actively ludicrous "Kiss Me at Midnight" met me halfway. Elsewhere, the Syncers emote lamely, singing six allegedly tantalizing notes where one would have been plenty. An example: During the intro to "In Love on Christmas," four of these dreamboats harmonize to a modified "Jingle Bells" while the fifth groans, "Ungh-UUUUNGH! Ungh-UUUUNGH!" I was groaning, too, but for different reasons.
Ultimate Christmas (Arista) is a sampler that tries to be all things to all people, tossing together everyone from Nat King Cole ("The Christmas Song") and Ella Fitzgerald ("Frosty the Snowman") to Sarah McLachlan ("Song for a Winter's Night") and Boyz II Men ("Silent Night"). Predictably, it lacks consistency, placing good songs such as Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" alongside skin-crawlers like Kenny G's "Silver Bells" and a truly laughable "Sleigh Ride" by Johnny Mathis. The "ultimate" tag applies to around a third of the material, with the rest falling somewhere between "okay" and "unendurable." The quality percentage is even lower for The Colors of Christmas (Windham Hill), due mainly to the bland nature of the participating artists. Maybe it's a personal failing, but I couldn't get all that worked up about listening to two songs by Melissa Manchester and "The Lord's Prayer" by Sheena Easton, who's a long way from "Sugar Walls." Philip Bailey's castrato "Silent Night" stands out, as do Peabo Bryson's "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and Jeffrey Osborne's "This Christmas," but that's probably because of the company they're keeping.
Fanciers of corporate metal will be cheered by Merry Axemas, Volume 2: More Guitars for Christmas (Epic), in which cock-rockers of yore fret for the holidays. Since I'm the type of Scrooge who's thrilled that Toto and Journey are no longer ruling radio, I was underwhelmed in a big way by the contributions of those bands' respective ax-slingers, Steve Lukather and Neal Schon, and I thought Billy Idol associate Steve Stevens's "Do You Hear What I Hear" and Robin Trower's "O Little Town of Bethlehem" were stultifying as well. So thank heavens for Ted Nugent, who gets "Deck the Halls" in his sites and starts firing. Scores a bull's-eye, too. Jermaine Dupri Presents 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas (So So Def/Columbia) doesn't make as much of an impact, because producers Dupri, Michael Mauldin and Samuel J. Sapp III are reluctant to pull the trigger. In the cover photo, Dupri looks like a hip-hop Santa Claus just itching to kick your ass, but instead of loading the CD with rap, he's assembled R&B acts on the mellow end of the spectrum. K-Ci & JoJo light a small fire under "In Love at Christmas," and Alicia Keys offers a "Little Drummer Girl" slinky enough to invite comparisons to Erykah Badu, but Kenny Lattimore, Xscape, Brian McKnight and Gerald Levert maintain a ballad-like pace, and even Chaka Khan reins herself in on "Christmas Only Once a Year." The songs may be about Christmas, but the music is about doing the nasty. Too bad a lot of it is flaccid.
That's not the case with Yuletide Soiree (Rhino): The two-disc set includes Bobby Helms's "Jingle Bell Rock," the Ventures' "Sleigh Ride" and a bundle of other rock-and-roll Christmas favorites, as well as Spike Jones's "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas soundtrack. But the music seems secondary to the concept--a "party pack" that tosses recipes, shopping lists and song lyrics provided for sing-alongs into a specially designed three-ring binder that jacks up Soiree's price and increases Rhino's profit margin. That's what Christmas is all about.