When it came time to categorize the more than thirty holiday releases I've received this year for our annual seasonal-CD roundup, I made an odd discovery: The discs fell into more different brackets than ever before. In general, this proved to be a good thing. But as usual, many of the details proved agonizing. Find below a guide to the fanciest presents, as well as those gifts you wouldn't give to your worst enemies.
LOUNGING AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE As trends go, the neo-lounge movement has pretty much run its course: You haven't seen many articles about it in Newsweek lately, have you? But the craze still has enough juice in it to have justified a pair of flashbacks to the first martini revolution. AEsquivel!: Merry Xmas From the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (Bar/None) is a salute to Juan Garcia Esquivel, one of the great discoveries of today's loungers-come-lately. It begins and ends with newly recorded tracks featuring the man himself delivering charmingly unctuous Christmas wishes to you and yours, but the dialogue is too self-consciously daffy: Its nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality produces cringes, not chuckles. The other material (mainly recorded between 1959 and 1962) earns its laughs more honestly. Vocal tracks along the lines of "Here Comes Santa Claus" (featuring the Skip Jacks, a singing group that included future actress Stella Stevens) are likably odd, but the zippiest tracks here are instrumentals such as "Snowfall," in which Esquivel's arrangements pop and fizz from beginning to end. With a Christmas Vibe, by Arthur Lyman (Rykodisc), represents another brand of camp: Songs such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Mele Kalikimaka" and "The Little Drummer Boy" exude a fabulously phony Christmas-in-the-South-Pacific feel that marks so much of the most distinctive exotica. As on the Esquivel long-player, the folks who put together the project erred by making it so clear that they're in on the joke: In this case, the liner notes are filled with Hawaiian recipes. Still, numbers such as "We Three Kings" (introduced by a gong straight out of Gunga Din) help make Vibe a felicitous journey indeed.
THE OLDE DAYS
It's doubtful that people interested in hearing how folks from centuries past commemorated Christ's birth constitute a very large consumer market. Nonetheless, this group is being serviced this year by a pair of CDs. The most accessible of these is The Ancient Music of Christmas, by Ethan James (Hannibal), in which James uses the hurdy-gurdy, the harmonium and a variety of early instruments in the performance of hymns, folk songs and other historical ephemera. Unfortunately, the liner notes contain precious little information about the ditties themselves--how old they are, where they were written and what part they once played in winter festivities. But the tracks (which sport titles such as "From church to church/A virgin most pure/When Christ was born of Mary free") are so rich, deep and intriguing that you'll likely find yourself eager to hear them long after the decorations are packed away for another year. Listeners are less likely to feel the same way about Christmas Chants, by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos (Milan). The Monks, whose big-selling Chant recording stunned industry observers a couple of years back, offer up bottomless renditions of musical pieces associated with Christmas celebrations in the Roman Catholic Church. The results are gorgeous but one-dimensional: Although the platter includes over 54 minutes of music, it lacks any and all variety. Furthermore, the various hymns and canticles produced within this particular lapsed Catholic an overwhelming sense of guilt for being a lapsed Catholic in the first place. And I need more guilt like Michael Jordan needs a few more commercial endorsements.
Christian acts long ago realized that Christmas is a time of year when even secular artists feel comfortable displaying a touch of religion. Predictably, the following full-lengths show off considerably more than that. Emmanuel: A Musical Celebration of the Life of Christ (Sparrow) isn't a Christmas CD per se; rather, it's an all-star tribute to the man with the thorns in his hat by crossover stars Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, supplemented by Christian stars like Susan Ashton and Twila Paris. But songs such as "Emmanuel Theme" and "Behold, A King Shall Reign" are presented in such an overblown, lachrymose manner that all but the least judgmental among you will flee in terror. The First Noel (Sparrow), by Steve Green, represents easier sledding, but the recording as a whole is as much adult contemporary as Christian contemporary. "All My Heart Rejoices," in which the soupy-voiced Green is joined by a choir of children, is pretty much the only tune on the album that implies that Christmastime can be fun; the rest (including the title track, "Good News" and "Away in a Manger Medley") adhere to draggy tempos and predictable arrangements. Much the same can be said for the Sandi Patty offering O Holy Night! (Word/Epic). Patty's stilted pipes are turned loose on a slew of familiar compositions, and while she displays a lighter touch than you might expect on "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays/I'll Be Home for Christmas," it's not enough to make up for by-the-numbers readings of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Star of Bethlehem." Special bonus: The project includes a "note from Sandi" that reads in part, "Many of you know that for years I've struggled with my weight. A recent decision to call Jenny Craig has changed all that...I sincerely encourage you to visit a local centre and get more information." Want another helping of ham, Uncle Bob?
JINGLE BELL ROCK
Of all the major record labels, Geffen is the one that most frequently puts out artist compilations--most of which bite the big colostomy bag. But Just Say Noël is an exception. The lead track, Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy," is an inspired catastrophe: After promising to drop some "Hanukkah science," our diminutive hero leads a merry crew through a chipper deconstruction of the season in general--but he does so in such an upbeat way that only a Scrooge would be offended by it. Also groovy are Sonic Youth's chipper, distorted version of the Martin Mull novelty "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope"; the Roots' revival of the De La Soul favorite "Mille Pulled a Pistol on Santa"; a suggestively smarmy "Merry Christmas Baby" by Southern Culture on the Skids; "Gloria," in which Elastica imitates the Waitresses; the XTC chestnut "Thanks for Christmas"; and "Amazing Grace," sung with singular delicacy by the late Ted Hawkins. A keeper. O Come All Ye Faithful: Rock for Choice (Columbia) is less consistent, but it, too, has its moments. Henry Rollins's reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is awesomely stupid, and efforts by Dance Hall Crashers, Sponge, Juliana Hatfield and Bush (whose poorly recorded "Good King Somethingorother" should have remained on the cutting-room floor, where it belonged) come to naught. But these minuses are balanced out by Shudder to Think's melodramatic "Al Hanisim," Wool's punky "Xmas It's Christmas," Luscious Jackson's enigmatic "Queen of Bliss," the Cranes' creepy rendition of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," and "Christmas Piglet," a throwaway tossed together by the Presidents of the United States of America. Oh, yeah--the album's for a good cause.
The only cause slated to benefit from Ghost of Christmas Past (Resounding) is Flash Cadillac, an oldies combo that uses Colorado Springs as a home base. Recorded last December with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Springs Children's Chorale, the album features "All Alone on Christmas," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Sleighride" and other tracks meant to bring back memories of Phil Spector. To put it mildly, Phil doesn't have much to worry about, but the project is listenable and inoffensive. Many of you would use different words to describe Christmas With the Vandals: Oi to the World! (Kung Fu Records), but not me; I think it's swell. The Vandals--punks from the old school--have come up with scads of future classics for this CD, including "A Gun for Christmas" ("I will use my new weapon in self-defense and sport/And to keep the carolers off my goddamn front porch"); "Grandpa's Last X-Mas" ("How come he always calls me 'Kate'/And forgets his dentures on his dinner plate?"); "Thanx for Nothing" ("Thank you for the knife/You stabbed me in the back with"); "Christmas for My Penis" ("You'll get the attention you need.../We'll get whores and pornography"); and "My First X-Mas (As a Woman)" ("I won't have to tuck it behind me/Since I got my brand new vagina"). Includes a lyric sheet so you and the kids can sing the songs together.
HORNS O' PLENTY
Why has 1996 seen an avalanche of seasonal CDs from performers in the jazz genre? Hell if I know--but jazz buffs wishing to supplement their libraries will find no shortage of discs from which to choose. Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity (Milan) is certainly the most ambitious: Narrated by retired newsman Charles Kuralt, this live recording finds jazzers Lionel Hampton, Grady Tate, Jon Faddis, Dave Brubeck and many more embroiled in a rendering of the Christmas story. Given the lineup, it's no surprise that the playing is extremely traditional. However, much of it is also gorgeous: I particularly enjoyed a version of "Silent Night" featuring tenor saxophonist Bob Kindred and a showy take of "We Three Kings" with Tito Puente on timbales. Quasi-operatic singing mars a number of tracks, but prudent use of your player's programming feature turns A Jazz Nativity into a fairly good time. A Swingin' Christmas (Intersound), by the League of Gentlemen, features fewer big names--okay, it features no big names--but the presentation is modest and good-humored enough to make it reasonably diverting. Vocalist Tommy Dean is a congenial host, the rest of the band proves that journeymen can occasionally rise to the occasion, and the song selection is adequate, if a bit unadventurous. "Greensleeves" bops along nicely, but "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" are peppier and more fun. Boney's Funky Christmas (Warner Bros.) seems to promise more of the same, but its star, saxophonist Boney James, can't deliver. Instead of dishing out funk, James mainly operates in the gray area between jazz and pop music. The synthesizers and keyboards are too prominent, robbing "This Christmas," "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" of any and all spontaneity. And jazz without spontaneity is like a comedian without any jokes--pretty damn unnecessary.
Also on the lifeless side is the Phil Sheeran presentation I'll Be Home for Christmas (Passage). Guitarist Sheeran is into tidy licks, and he surrounds himself with players who take the same too-subtle approach. He occasionally has good ideas--like the samba rhythm he imposes on "What Child Is This"--but overall, Home comes a little too close to Muzak for my taste. John Pizzarelli displays considerably more exuberance on Let's Share Christmas (RCA): Although the thinking man's Harry Connick Jr. is surrounded by heavy orchestration on all but one song ("Sleigh Ride," in which Pizzarelli is accompanied by his regular trio), he never lets himself get bogged down. His "White Christmas" is properly unabashed, "Santa Claus Is Near" zips along nicely under the power of a fine horn arrangement, and "Snowfall" is effectively atmospheric. I could have done without "Silent Night," which Michel Legrand slathers in strings and portentous blasts of brass; that Pizzarelli survives the pomp is a testament to his skills. This year's finest Christmas disc by a jazz artist, though, is Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols (Atlantic), by Cyrus Chestnut. Although Chestnut's piano is the only instrument heard on the CD, the tunes don't want for anything; the gaps between the notes are filled to overflowing with emotion. As anyone familiar with Chestnut's work knows, his fingers can fly--but instead of showing off, he goes for minimalism on the gorgeous "Jesus Loves Me," "The Old Rugged Cross" and most of the other ten numbers present. Only a master could have pulled off this gambit. Fortunately, Chestnut is one.
Each year brings us at least a handful of seasonal CDs by famous people whose name recognition guarantees healthy sales. Atop this list for 1996 is the undeniably evil Michael Bolton, whose This Is the Time: The Christmas Album (Columbia) will test the patience of virtually anyone with a functioning auditory system. It's all here, folks: A lugubrious "Silent Night," a somnambulant "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a goopy "This Is the Time" (in which Bolton duets with Wynonna Judd), and a version of "Joy to the World" that the Balding One tries to transform into a power ballad. Eeesh. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" blatantly rips off Bruce Springsteen, but at least it's upbeat--something that can't be said of "Ave Maria," in which Bolton matches pipes with Placido Domingo. Guess who loses. Domingo also pops up in A Celebration of Christmas (Elektra), in which he shares top billing with Jose Carreras and Natalie Cole. To say that the package, recorded live in Vienna in late 1995, is schizophrenic is to denigrate schizophrenia. "Panis angelicus" (voiced by Carreras) is a classical offering, pure and simple; "O Joyful Children" (a Domingo number) is an unholy mating of opera and pop; and "The Christmas Song" (which Cole croons solo) sounds like an outtake from Cole's previous holiday platter, 1994's fairly enjoyable Holly and Ivy. But those cuts in which Cole sings alongside opera-meisters Carreras and Domingo are the most awkward: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Stille Nacht" virtually define incompatability: Natalie won't be singing at the Met anytime soon. This Christmas (MCA), by Patti LaBelle, also contains a noteworthy incongruity: "Country Christmas," in which Patti tries to prove how down-home she is. The rest of the disc is more consistent: The various producers on the project maintain a smooth soul sound that links tracks like "'Twas Love," "Nothing Could Be Better" and "If Everyday Could Be Like Christmas." But even though LaBelle really belts out "O Holy Night," the full-length as a whole is still fairly dull. Sorry, Patti. Jimmy Buffett's Christmas Island (Margaritaville/ MCA) is much saucier; in fact, "Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rhum" is positively soaked in the stuff. This last number is dumb but bouncy, making it preferable to the other two Buffett originals here--"A Sailor's Christmas" (a rehash of themes he's hashed far too many times already) and the sticky "Merry Christmas, Alabama (Never Far From Home)" (although locals will no doubt enjoy the verse that includes a John Denver-esque valentine to Colorado). In the main, the disc is a blatant bid for a few extra bucks--as if you needed me to tell you that. But Parrotheads will no doubt slurp it up. What a surprise.
CHRISTMAS ALL OVER THE WORLD
The title of the various artists' collection World Christmas (Metro Blue) is an accurate one: Performers from a slew of far-flung locations contribute tracks. Even so, the disc hangs together quite well. Papa Wemba and Mino Cinelu give "Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High)" a bubbly Afro-beat feel; Angelique Kidjo does likewise throughout "Zan Vevede (O Holy Night)"; John Scofield and New Orleans' own Wild Magnolias find a rousing middle ground during "Go Tell It on the Mountain"; Deep Forest and Lokua Kanza effectively reimagine "Ave Maria"; and Yomo Toro and the Boricua All Stars, featuring Ruben Blades, put a Central American jolt into "Cascabel (Jingle Bells)." Not everything here's a masterwork--"Michaux Velliat/Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," by the Caribbean Jazz Project, is on the sleepy side--but taken as a whole, World Christmas, a CD whose sales benefit the Special Olympics, is among 1996's finest seasonal recordings. A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas (Celtic Heartbeat/ Atlantic) can't match this peak, in part because it's more monochromatic, but it's far from a complete loss. Selections like "The Snowy Birch Trees," by Thomas Loefke, are so new-agey that they all but vanish on their way to your ear, but "A Dream in the Night," by Clannad (an act whose appeal had previously escaped me), is suitably mysterious, and Ashley MacIsaac's "The Night Before Christmas (The Devil in the Kitchen)" reels like a drunken poet. Which, in case you're curious, is intended as a compliment.
A Classic Cartoon Christmas, released on the Nick at Nite Records/550 Music Imprint, seems like a first-rate idea: What baby boomer wouldn't love to own a disc jammed with tunes culled from holiday TV specials of yore? But speaking as a guy who was recently subjected to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a lot of this stuff is appalling dreck. "We're a Couple of Misfits," a Rudolph outtake credited to Billie Richards and Paul Soles, is a prime example: You'd have to be pretty damn attached to your inner child to get through it unnauseated. But I was glad to hear the two tracks snipped from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, three Vince Guraldi Trio efforts originally cut for inclusion in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Jimmy Durante's "Frosty the Snowman." Makes you misty just thinking about it, eh? Virgin Records' The Best Christmas Ever aims for the nostalgia button, too, and it does so adroitly, blending efforts by Dean Martin ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!") and Eartha Kitt ("Santa Baby"), with blues by B.B. King and Lowell Fulsom, jazz courtesy of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and soul from Solomon Burke. Some of you may already have these ditties on previous compilations; if not, Best may be just your speed. And then there's the soundtrack to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Jingle All the Way (TVT). I was recently subjected to this cinematic abomination, and I'm only exaggerating a little bit when I say that I would rather have the inside of my kneecap scraped with a putty knife than be forced to sit through it again. However, the CD companion is quite enjoyable: It features a jumpin' version of "Jingle Bells" by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Chuck Berry's classic "Run Rudolph Run," Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa" and other good stuff. Of course, purchasing it means you'll own a disc with Sinbad on its cover. Clearly, life is full of tradeoffs.
GOIN' UP THE COUNTRY
It's a wicked truth that the country acts most apt to make holiday records are the very ones you wish wouldn't. Shenandoah's Christmas (Capitol) is proof of that. These Oak Ridge Boys for the Nineties harmonize through the expected tracks ("White Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem") in the expected manner. Wake me when it's over. Tinsel Tunes: More Holiday Treats From Sugar Hill (Sugar Hill) is infinitely more satisfying because it's much closer to the country tradition. "Blue Christmas Lights," by Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, kicks things off in suitably melodramatic style; it's followed by "In the Bleak Midwinter," by a mournful Mollie O'Brien, a charming "Christmas Is Coming to Town," by the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, an unexpectedly gruff swing through "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday," by Don Dixon and Marti Jones, and Robert Earl Keen's wonderful "Christmas From the Family." This is one long-player that will start the season with a twang.
LUMPS OF SOUL
If you come to Merry Soulful Christmas (MCA) expecting to hear talents like Otis Redding, you're bound to be disappointed. What you get instead is a couple of cuts from the aforementioned Patti LaBelle album, plus swill from the Jets ("I'm Home for Christmas," "This Christmas, This Year") and Stephanie Mills ("Merry Christmas," "Christmas With You," "Silent Night"). You know a disc's in trouble when the top offering is "All I Need for Christmas Is My Girl," an eleven-year-old New Edition single in which Bobby Brown and company sound for all the world like New Kids on the Block. Speaking of teen dreams, there are plenty of them on 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas, Part 1 (Columbia). X-Scape does its female Boyz II Men thing on "Christmas Without You," Alicia Keys finally gets around to purring "Little Drummer Girl" (her spoken intro lasts more than a minute), and K-Ci and JoJo of Jodeci transform "In Love at Christmas" into an under-the-Christmas-tree boinkfest. Oldsters such as Chaka Khan and Gerald Levert also are present and accounted for--and their contributions help make Soulful a decent dabble in ultra-commercial R&B. Perfect for those who think that the phrase "Santa's coming" has at least two meanings.
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And now for the items that don't fit into any category--such as Blame It on Christmas!: Volume 1, a compilation of novelty numbers by folks with names like the Three Weissmen. (The trio presents "Jingle Bells of the Ages" and "Schlepp the Halls With Loaves of Hallah.") As with most recordings of this type, Blame is exceedingly erratic. But while "12 Arabian Nights" (by Abu-Habib el Sa'ad Jr.) and "Real Merry Gents Don't Rest" (from the Border Patrol) aren't exactly scintillating, Mr. Bob Francis's "That Swingin' Manger" and "We Three Bings," which sends up the late Bing Crosby, are good for a yuk. But probably not two. Equally unusual is Quad City All Star Christmas, in which various practitioners of the spare, thumping dance music associated with the Quad City production team give their sound a seasonal twist. Those of you who insist upon reverence probably won't dig the rapped delivery of lines such as "Christmas day/The birth of Christ/No doubt/That's what it's all about" (from "What You Want for Christmas" by the 69 Boyz, Quad City DJ's and K-nock) or "All I want for Christmas/Is a man who ain't got three or four babies" (from "Where Dey at YO!" by K-nock featuring 24K). But if you're hungry for holiday music that's not afraid to be either cheeky or silly, you could do a lot worse than these hip-hoppy excursions.
Michael Powers takes a lazier tack on Frosty the Bluesman (Miramar). Rather than digging into the blues tradition, Powers and his comrades stay on the surface, delivering instrumental versions of seasonal faves with only a slightly bluesy touch. (They also delve into reggae territory on the ill-advised "Deck de Halls Mon.") A snooze. Also somewhat lethargic is Festival of Light (Six Degrees/Island), a compilation of numbers associated with Hanukkah, a celebration generally ignored by major labels. Too bad the producers here are so cautious about tinkering with traditionals; even "Dybbuk Shers," by the normally audacious Klezmatics, is on the safe side--although it gets more interesting as it goes along. The other top-drawer items are "Bikkurim," by Masada String Trio, a John Zorn project; Jane Siberry's eccentric "Shir Amami"; Don Byron's jaunty "Oi Tata"; and the Covenant's "Kiddush Le-Shabbat," which sports something of a dance beat. Because if it's a festival, it should be festive.
Far worse is Christmas Morning (Miramar),an instrumental disc in which "The First Noel," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Green-sleeves" are performed slowly and quietly--oh, so slowly! Oh, so quietly!--by anonymous studio hacks. That's not entertainment--and neither is Christmas Eve and Other Stories, by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Lava/Atlantic). No, it's something much more frightening. The cover sticker--"File Under Symphonic Rock"--should stand as a warning to those with weak hearts that the Orchestra's versions of "O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" make the work of Meat Loaf seem understated by comparison. As bombastic as it is banal, Christmas Eve is so bad that's it's actually sort of amusing. But be careful: Play it too loud, and Grandma may have to spend Christmas in the emergency room.
Then again, that would make it a Christmas to remember, wouldn't it?