How many versions of "Jingle Bells" does the average person need?
Plenty, apparently. Each year, the recording industry unleashes a torrent of seasonal discs, most of them dominated by a humdrum repertoire of tunes -- and each year a percentage of them sells well enough to justify a similar deluge twelve months later. What follows are reviews of 35 such offerings, ranging from gifts that keep on giving to the aural equivalent of ugly ties or argyle socks that most folks will appreciate only if they can be returned for cash. So dive in -- but keep those receipts handy.
Never accuse flirty trollop Christina Aguilera of not striking while the iron, or the booty, is hot: Already this year, she's issued a CD larded with Spanish-language versions of her modest array of hits, and now here's My Kind of Christmas (RCA), a disc that was rushed into stores before any of her prepubescent fans could outgrow her. Things start promisingly, or at least humorously, with "Christmas Time," which spotlights all of the Christina staples (register-stretching wails, coy whispers, a faux-Renaissance-era break, even a mini-rap), and "This Year," a slab of out-of-place horniness that finds our heroine teasingly cooing about "the music on my tongue when I say 'fa-la-la'" as if she's just discovered that candy canes can be used as sexual aids. But aside from "Xtina's Xmas," an unintentionally hilarious dance mix replete with sampled Aguilera yowls, the rest of the album consists mainly of unimaginative treatments of unsurprising tunes (like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") that aren't enlivened by our heroine's Mariah Carey impressions. But at least she duets with Dr. John on the stunningly garish "Merry Christmas Baby." The ol' guy could use the royalty checks.
The C&W dreamboats in Lonestar take considerably fewer left turns on This Christmas Time (BNA), countrifying (sort of) the Bruce Springsteen arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," putting a dash of soul (but not nearly enough) into "Please Come Home for Christmas," and deploying stereotypical vocal throbs on "Reason for the Season." The disc is listenable in a singularly dull way, but as commerce, it pulls no punches: Its liner includes a jumbo advertisement for Lonestar's previous disc, Lonely Grill, deemed "a great holiday gift!" Such blatant salesmanship casts Dexter Freebish's Happy Holidays From Dexter Freebish (Capitol) in a better light. A CD single that also includes an acoustic version of "Leaving Town," Holidays is anchored by "Last Christmas," a single that shows in just over three minutes how and why modern rock has become so tedious of late -- but if computer users click over to hollywoodandvine.com, they can download it for free and save themselves a few bucks. Merry Christmas, everyone!
FADING STAR TIME
When an act is way past prime time, there's no better way to keep product in the racks than to crank out a Christmas CD; that's a sacred music-biz rule. Even so, it's still something of a shock to see Christmas Time Again (CMC International) by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Southern-rock army that once fired off "Saturday Night Special." I'm guessing that if original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant hadn't croaked in that late-'70s plane crash, these guys never would have wound up playing "Greensleeves." But no one in the Charlie Daniels Band or .38 Special died, and they've got songs on this disc as well, so who knows? Suffice it to say that when Again rawks, as it does on Skynyrd's amusingly dunderheaded "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," it's worth a chuckle, and when it doesn't, as on "Mama's Song" and "Classical Christmas," it's kinda sad. All these fellas want for Christmas is to be noticed again.
Of course, Linda Ronstadt is in pretty much the same leaky canoe as Skynyrd, but A Merry Little Christmas (Elektra) doesn't seem so out of character for her; the only surprise is that she took so long to get around to it. The album itself is precisely what you might expect from an aging chanteuse -- lots of thick, creamy arrangements and an unmistakable sense of importance on "I Wonder as I Wander" and elsewhere that banishes fun to the margins. It's been many years since "You're No Good," and that's too bad. Christmas With Yolanda Adams (Elektra) displays a lighter touch. Adams, a onetime rising R&B star who never rose as high as many observers anticipated, doesn't go anywhere that's especially unforeseen, but her handling of "Born This Day," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and so on is mature without being stodgy and allows the occasional hint of soul to sneak in here and there. And in this case, every little bit helps.
Michael Ball's Christmas (Hip-O) takes a much weightier tack. This heartthrob of the British stage, who's trying to establish himself stateside with the Andrew Lloyd Webber crowd, attempts to revitalize theatrical cliches by using them as enthusiastically as possible; his "Ave Maria" is positively flooded with crescendos, and "Happy New Year" ends in a whisper of the title that's every bit as sincere as Al Gore is when he says the election fight isn't about him, but about justice. Michael Crawford, you've got some company. As for pianist Lorie Line, she's made holiday music her sonic signature: The Silver Album (Time Line) is her fourth such collection in nine years -- and, as she implies in the liner notes, her last. Would that we were so lucky. Silver is built upon solo piano versions of tunes she somehow has missed recording until now, with only a vocal by young Kendall Line (a relative, perhaps?) on "Away in a Manger" to break up the monotony. Line began her career playing in department stores, and her lachrymose keyboarding made me feel as if I were trapped at Foley's. Would someone call the rescue squad?
MIX AND MATCH
Aside from Christina Aguilera's salvo, the biggest teen dream of the 2000 holidays is Platinum Christmas (Arista/RCA/Jive), a holiday summit of kiddie-pop sensations, with token oldsters such as Dave Matthews and Santana thrown in for good measure. But the largest names disappoint. Instead of something provocative -- say, "Hit Me, Santa, One More Time" -- Britney Spears delivers "My Only Wish (This Year)," an unobjectionable but generic retro bounce-fest; 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are at their most cloying on, respectively, the drippy "I Don't Wanna Spend One More Christmas Without You" and the tepid "Christmas Time"; and Aguilera's "Silent Night/Noche de Paz" is, um, way too virginal. There's not much life elsewhere, either. TLC's "Sleigh Ride" shakes and shimmies engagingly, and at least R. Kelly's "World Christmas" has a clap track -- but unless you've been dying to hear Dido ape Joni Mitchell, as she does on "Christmas Day," that's about the size of it. Sorry, boys and girls.
There's also lotsa celebrity shine on Another Rosie Christmas (Columbia), but it mostly takes a backseat to the jumbo ego of talk-show queen Rosie O'Donnell, who feels compelled to thrust herself forward as often as possible. I've had a lot of nightmares in my life, but nothing quite like "Nuttin' for Christmas," in which Rosie trades rhymes with Smash Mouth, and her "comic" Spanish cameo in Ricky Martin's "Ay, Ay, Ay, It's Christmas" and endless hayseed camping in "Merry Christmas From the Family," a swell Robert Earl Keen composition covered here by the Dixie Chicks, is every bit as agonizing. Kudos, then, to Destiny's Child, Marc Anthony and Donna Summer, who somehow managed to prevent O'Donnell from contributing to their songs at all.
All-Star Christmas (Epic) and A Country Superstar Christmas III (Hip-O) are more conventional compilations, with the former tossing together everyone from Celine Dion and Charlotte Church to Wham! and Elmo & Patsy (yep, it's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" again), and the latter trotting out Martina McBride, Vince Gill, Randy Travis and more C&W regulars. They each have their moments: All-Star earns a few plaudits for Al Green's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Jeff Beck's "Amazing Grace," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Billy Gilman with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel; and Alan Jackson ("A Holly Jolly Christmas") and George Strait ("Christmas Cookies") acquit themselves well on Country Superstar. But neither album is steadily gratifying -- unless, that is, they're being compared to Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas (Epic/550 Music). Songstress Vonda Shepard, whose career was inexplicably boosted by her McBeal exposure, is bad enough most of the time ("The Man With the Bag" is tolerable, "Silver Bells" isn't), but she's Maria Callas compared to actresses Jane Krakowski ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus") and Calista Flockhart ("Santa Baby"). And that's not to mention addiction poster child Robert Downey Jr., who checks in, appropriately enough, with "River." Which he'll be going up again real soon.
Guitarist John Fahey is obsessed with the great beyond: He's probably penned or performed more songs with "death" in the title than any other artist. But while this predilection would seem to render him unqualified to produce a seasonal CD fit for anyone other than those who feel suicidal each December, he's actually a fine interpreter of such material. On The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album/Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II (Takoma), a reissued compilation of offerings canned in 1968 and 1975, Fahey digs into "The Bells of St. Mary's," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Carol of the Bells" (in which he duets with Richard Ruskin) and other familiar airs with reverence and rigorousness. The result is pretty enough for those weaned on new-age wallpaper, but with a depth and heft that seem beyond most of the Windham Hill crowd. Perky it ain't, but neither is it likely to inspire depressives to start using the cutlery to carve wrists instead of turkey.
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut's last holiday disc, 1996's Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols, was just as austere as Fahey's long-player, offering solo renditions of standards and obscurities that worked simultaneously as appropriate seasonal fare and great, albeit often challenging, jazz. This time around, though, he's come up with a considerably more accessible present. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic), credited to Cyrus Chestnut & Friends, tackles ditties associated with or inspired by Peanuts TV specials from days gone by using a cast that includes jazz heavyweights (saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Wallace Roney) and genre-hopping pop types. That sounds like a watered-down recipe, and it is to some degree; Chestnut clearly reins himself in on occasion. But "Christmas Time Is Here," starring Vanessa Williams and the Boys Choir of Harlem, isn't nearly as lugubrious as it might have been, and "The Christmas Song," as crooned by Brian McKnight, and "What Child Is This?," sporting harmonies by the Manhattan Transfer, maintain a low-key sophistication that melds well with Chestnut-composed efforts such as "Me and Charlie Brown" that are straight down Joe Cool's alley.
Nationally known musicians aren't the only ones who understand the unique promotional opportunities afforded by the holidays, as demonstrated by this trio of Colorado-based releases. Darren Curtis Skanson, an area instrumentalist and marketing wizard, has assembled The Christmas Story (Colorado Creative Music), a disc that combines ultra-gentle, guitar-dominated run-throughs of the usual suspects -- "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Away in a Manger," "Silent Night" -- interspersed with readings from the gospels of Luke and Matthew by Wayne Pederson. Because Pederson's narration is accompanied by silence, not music, the album is hardly a seamless listening experience, stopping and starting so often that it only occasionally achieves the soothing effect for which Skanson seems to be shooting. Your ninety-year-old auntie will like it, but that doesn't mean she'll stay awake to the end.
A Rocky Mountain Christmas Collection, Vol. 1, which pledges part of its proceeds to assist abused and neglected children, showcases artists mainly associated with Fort Collins's Hapi Skratch Records, and as is the case with all of the label's products, its sound quality is first-rate. If only the performances were more inspired. Fourth Estate's brawny, electrified refashioning of Bach's "Joy," cut in 1992, is effective in a showy, guitar-school way, and Dave Beegle's "A Simple Prayer" serves as a platform for his meticulous picking, but the brassy "Santa's Dog House Blues," by Chris Daniels, isn't nearly as rollicking as it wants to be, Taylor Mesplé's "To the Sky" fails to take off, and Trace's "O' Holy Night" is so oversung that it hurts. A better Hapi Skratch bet is Christmas Time Is Here, by the veteran Denver quartet called Perpetual Motion. Following a tasteful version of "Joy to the World" that also appears on Rocky Mountain Christmas, the combo enlivens "Northern Lights," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and the wittily titled "The Little Drummer Boy (From Ipanema)" via stylish arrangements and the refined violin playing of Josie Quick. No, it doesn't rock -- but not everything has to, ya know?
HO, HO, HOS
Most Christmases offer up a musical goof or two, but this year there's a bumper crop. Sleighed: The Other Side of Christmas (Hip-O) is undoubtedly the dumbest, providing a forum for naughty novelties such as the venerable Red Peters's "You Ain't Getting Shit for Christmas" and the Little Stinkers' "I Farted on Santa's Lap (Now Christmas Is Gonna Stink for Me)." But also in the package are more eccentric efforts, Sonic Youth's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy" and Spinal Tap's awesome "Christmas With the Devil" foremost among them. It's practically impossible to listen to from start to finish, but that's why your CD player has a programming button.
The Looney Tunes Kwazy Christmas (Kid Rhino) won't wear nearly as well for anyone over the age of nine, and it's not only because the folks imitating Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Tweety and the rest won't sound quite right to anyone more accustomed to Mel Blanc. To put it simply, grownups will almost certainly agree that the idea of Sylvester singing a Las Vegasy "Frosty the Snowman" is funnier conceptually than it is in execution. But the first-graders will understand.
By contrast, Mark Mothersbaugh's Joyeux Mutato (Rhino) provides fun for the whole clan. Mothersbaugh, who founded Devo back when his wave was new, has gone on to a career providing scene-setting music for children's TV, and the best of these skewed miniatures -- "Jingles, Jingles, Jingles," "Happy Woodchopper," "Enough Xmas for All" and "I Don't Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night)," presented in a "low-tolerance edit" -- recall his work on the eternal Pee-wee's Playhouse. Weird in a family-friendly way.
And then there's the soundtrack to Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Interscope), which intersperses dialogue from the ultra-frantic film with portions of the James Horner score and stand-alone songs that veer wildly from saccharine sincerity -- Faith Hill's "Where Are You Christmas?" and "You Don't Have to Be Alone" by the ubiquitous 'N Sync -- to flat-out silliness. The Eels' "Christmas Is Going to the Dogs" barks persuasively, but even the elderly Beethoven would have had a tough time listening to "Grinch 2000" by Jim Carrey and (no, I'm not joking) Busta Rhymes. As for me, I'll take the fifth.
Holiday vocalists don't get much bigger than Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras -- in any number of ways. The Three Tenors Christmas (Sony Classical) is similarly overstuffed, piling up a whopping 21 tracks by the boys or various combinations thereof. Subtle it ain't: When they're trying to be gentle, they're like battering rams, and when they're trying to be like battering rams, they're like thermonuclear war from one inch away. Moreover, their ventures into pop territory, as on an egregious evisceration of John Lennon's "Happy Christmas/War Is Over," are apt to frighten children and kill small animals. But when they stick to the classics, as they do on "Cantique de Noël," "Dormi O Bambino" and "Wiegenlied," they're hard to top -- or out-shout.
The sound of A Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas (Telarc Digital) is just as jumbo. The entire state of Utah seems to be on hand for "Joy to the World," "Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance?" and the elaborate "Fantasy on 'What Child Is This?'," going toe to toe and lung to symphony with the Orchestra at Temple Square, conducted by Craig Jessop. Anyone in search of Christmas music at its most traditional should belly up to this bar -- in a manner of speaking.
Them Irish sure like their holidays: How else to explain the proliferation of Celtic Christmas discs? Joining the emerald parade this year is A Thistle & Shamrock Christmas Ceilidh (Green Linnet), a compilation by contemporary Celts who mainly stick with what's worked for centuries: Phil Cunningham's "Ceilidh Funk" is about as modern as things get, which isn't very. But there's plenty of loveliness to go around, including Liz Carroll's "Sevens/Michael Kennedy's/The Cup of Tea" and the ardent "Reconciliation" by Niamh Parsons & the Loose Connections. In contrast, the Irish Rovers' Songs of Christmas (Hip-O) presents less restful, more rousing fare. The Rovers belt out "Bells Over Belfast," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Miss Fogarty's Christmas Cake" and more as if they were recorded live at a Dublin pub with their fists full of one-hundred-proof grog. Hoist another one, mateys!
On Christmas -- Santa Fe (Epic), guitarist Ottmar Liebert applies his neutered brand of flamenco to an array of conventional seasonal pieces, using the same middling tempo on virtually all of them, so that "Winter Wonderland" moves at just about the same rate as "Silent Night." If this were spun alongside other background music, it would still fade into the background. But enough people like this stuff to explain Lara & Reyes's Navidad (Higher Octave Music), which pretty much replows the same field: "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "White Christmas" are jauntier than anything on Liebert's disc, but only slightly. Good for settling down to a long winter's nap.
For the most part, A Putamayo World Christmas (Putamayo) doesn't rattle the rafters, either, but it does have the advantage of variety, drawing from numerous musical cultures and traditions rather than hewing to just one. Brazilian Ivan Lins's "Noite Para Festejar" is agreeably slinky, Colombia's Los Embajadores Vallenatos put a few tongues of fire into "Diciembre," and Ini Kimoze's "All I Want for Christmas" skanks in a pop-reggae mode that seems positively smokin' in this context. Hold it in as long as you can.
NOT THE LATEST STYLE
Even trends down to their last gasp usually can huff out a holiday CD or two, and that's the case with Sleigh Me (Atomic Goodies), a collection of "retro holiday classics" -- i.e., neo-swing -- sponsored by Atomic magazine. But while some of this stuff is too prefab to hold up, quite a few of these acts still have some juice left in them. Lavay Smith's "Winter Wonderland" is nice 'n' sassy, the Jive Aces' "Santa Is Back in Town" pays homage to Elvis Presley's definitive version, and "We Three Kings" by Michael Andrew and Swingerhead does the Harry Connick Jr. thing more effectively than poor Harry has in a while. As an added bonus, the disc also incorporates a Ventures-esque treatment of "Sleigh Ride" by Los Straitjackets, a surf-rock outfit that really has no business being here but sounds mighty swell nonetheless.
Mambo Santa Mambo: Christmas From the Latin Lounge (Rhino) does, too, largely because the cuts here are by vintage acts, not new ones trying to sound like them. Hearing the likes of Billy May, best known as an arranger for Frank Sinatra, trying to cash in on the original mambo craze with "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- Mambo," is a kick, as is the really stupid "How Can Santa Come to Puerto Rico?" by youthful crooner Ricky Vera and newly dead TV personality Steve Allen. But there's also a load of material that doesn't have to be served with a side order of irony to entertain, like the Enchanters' "Mambo Santa Mambo" and the truly weird "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" by the Skip-Jacks, with Esquivel & His Orchestra. The lounge fad may have gone the way of the dodo, but strangeness like this lasts forever.
DAYS OF YORE
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Bing Crosby is the Jimi Hendrix of holiday music: He waxed so many Christmas songs during his lifetime that his record company will probably be able to keep putting out a steady stream of new compilations until the next millennium. On A Merry Christmas With Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters (MCA), Der Bingle and the Andrews gals aren't always heard together; indeed, they're teamed on just six of twenty tracks, with individual showcases accounting for the difference. But nostalgists won't care a whit when Crosby is buh-buh-buh-ing on "You're All I Want for Christmas" and the Sisters are gallavanting through sprightly baubles like "Jing-A-Ling, Jing-A-Ling."
Strictly speaking, Radio City Christmas Spectacular (Legacy) is fresher: The show was recorded in August 2000, not the fall of 1933, when New York's Radio City first began putting on its annual holiday gala. But there's really nothing new here: "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll," which may be the most recent composition, sounds like something from Guys and Dolls. Sure, it's corny, but there's something quaint and even charming about the creaky conventions contained herein -- and that's not to mention the photo of grinning, makeup-spackled Rockettes wearing derbies festooned with simulated reindeer antlers. There's no business like show business.
Lifetime Music Presents Intimate Portrait: Christmas Belles (Rhino) proves that maxim many times over. An intelligently chosen compendium, the CD shines thanks to the inclusion of songs by Ella Fitzgerald ("Sleigh Ride"), Julie London ("Warm December"), Peggy Lee ("Christmas Carousel"), Lena Horne ("Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!") and many others. It's a pleasure from start to finish -- and although it isn't quite as consistent, Martha Stewart Living: Home For the Holidays (Rhino) comes close. The disc stumbles at times -- my first choice to sing "White Christmas" definitely would not have been Melissa Manchester -- but it succeeds overall by juxtaposing old reliables like Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" and Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" with less-played-out selections by Emmylou Harris ("The First Noel"), the Pretenders ("2000 Miles") and the Roches ("Silver Bells"), plus newer items by Loreena McKennitt ("Good King Wenceslas") and Jane Siberry ("Are You Burning Bright, Little Candle?").
Oh, yeah: I still regard Martha Stewart to be a demon from the fieriest village in hell -- but I liked the CD enough to keep it anyway. This truly is the season of miracles.