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 Here
An 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! 2 contains 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 Be
Few 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.
Goin' Up the Country
In a fiscally challenging year for C&W, down-home warblers are trying to make up for lost dimes. On The Best of Reba: The Christmas Collection (MCA), part of the so-called 20th Century Masters series, Reba McEntire cobbles together cuts from holiday discs made in 1987 and 1999 in the hopes of luring some new customers into the tent. Most of the material is typically slick, but "Up on the Housetop" scoots along pretty well, and "Happy Birthday Jesus (I'll Open This One for You)" supplements several affably corny spoken segments with what sounds like a gaggle of kids on a sugar binge. In addition, MCA is giving a renewed push to Lee Ann Womack's The Season for Romance, which fits snugly into the modern-country mode -- meaning it barely resembles old-school country at all. The orchestration is lush on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," and both "Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland" and "The Man With the Bag" nod to the big-band era. Pedal-steel players need not apply.
Joy for Christmas Day, by Kathy Mattea on Narada Records, doesn't have much twang, either, but it feels infinitely more authentic. Mattea is a folk-and-gospel traditionalist with a rich voice and an allergy to nonsense that serves her well on the driving "Unto Us a Child Is Born" and a rousing, church-ready run-through of Marc Cohn's "Baby King" that is one of the season's undeniable treasures. Also noteworthy is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Suzy Bogguss (Compadre), whose music is a lot more genuine than her surname implies. "Two-Step 'Round the Christmas Tree," in which she asks, "Did you ever see a Santa in cowboy boots?" is a sweet-tempered novelty, but "Baby It's Cold Outside," which pairs her with R&B mainstay Delbert McClinton, is legitimately hot stuff. No need to throw another log on the fire.
The top country male donning the Big Man's trademark red-and-white headgear is Kenny Chesney, whose All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan (BNA) proves that the representatives of the genre, which once rejected Jimmy Buffett, no longer have any problem visiting Margaritaville. While the title track and "Jingle Bells" give off a Caribbean-by-way-of-California tone, Chesney allows a hint of verifiable country into "Christmas in Dixie" and "Pretty Paper," a duet with Willie Nelson. Listenable, if nothing special. Slightly better is Guitar Christmas, by Steve Wariner (SelecTone), an instrumental exhibition that shows Wariner to be a fine player in the Les Paul/Chet Atkins mode. He seems more interested in showing off his admirable technique than in truly refashioning "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and a predictable roster of standards, but "Winter Wonderland" swings, albeit gently.
Classic Country Christmas (Time-Life Music) provides more fun per recording because compilation producer Joe Sasfy obviously put some substantial thought into the selection process. Iffy talents are represented by unexpectedly good songs -- Vince Gill's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is a telling example -- and performers who deserve the classic designation establish how they received it in the first place. Dolly Parton's plaintive "Hard Candy Christmas," Tammy Wynette's melodramatic "White Christmas," George Jones's towering "O Come All Ye Faithful" and Buck Owens's "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" put a lot of contemporary output to shame.
Then again, the new stuff on A Very Special Acoustic Christmas (Lost Highway) ain't too shabby. The folks behind the CD, which benefits Special Olympics, are plainly interested in appealing to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? crowd, not just C&W lifers -- hence the presence of Dan Tyminski, the singing voice for George Clooney, who enlivens "Frosty the Snowman," and Ralph Stanley, responsible for the crystalline "Christmas Is Near." Yet country and related forms are well served by Marty Stuart ("Even Santa Claus Gets the Blues"), Sam Bush ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!") and Rhonda Vincent ("Christmas Time at Home"), none of whom can get a sniff from current country radio. Maybe that's why country's had a fiscally challenging year.
Getting Your Irish Up
A lot of places around the world celebrate Christmas, but Ireland -- or musicians who specialize in the Celtic style, at least -- has turned the holiday into a cottage industry. Witness Boys of the Lough, who are still getting mileage out of the pristine, deeply felt Midwinter Night's Dream (Blix Street Records), from 1996; the outfit appears on Saturday, December 20, at Swallow Hill Music Hall. On tour as well are Matt and Shannon Heaton, who, along with Beth Leachman, presented samples from A Very Sicra Christmas, on Eats Records, at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium last week. The show's over, but the disc is a simply recorded affair that puts a folkie spin on airs such as "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and the dark jig "Feast for a King." Finally, Comfort and Joy: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn (Rounder) assembles mostly strong stuff by the likes of Dordán ("Ding Dong Merrily on High"), Robbie O'Connell ("Three Kings") and Steeleye Span alum Maddy Prior ("God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and two others). Looks like the luck of the Irish is still holding.
The Windham Hill imprint helped usher in the new-age genre -- an achievement that disgusts as many folks as it delights. Nonetheless, a sizable audience routinely purchases the firm's annual holiday releases even though one is pretty much like another. Aside from a memorably serene "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" sung by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Jim Brickman's Peace is larded with lachrymose, piano-powered renderings of tracks such as "Away in a Manger" that sound exactly like the dreck that's been played in Hallmark stores nationwide for well over a decade. As for A Windham Hill Christmas II, it dishes out slow-motion, cranium-numbing yuletide gruel by usual subjects Brickman, Liz Story, Alex de Grassi and George Winston. Talk about a long winter's nap.
Michael Wolff's Christmas Moods (Artemis Records) is a somewhat jazzier variation on the same concept, but there are some unexpected moments courtesy of Mark Isham's muted trumpet, the sly vocals Kenny Rankin injects into "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a thoroughly off-kilter cameo by the late Warren Zevon on "The Christmas Song." The black-humored Zevon no doubt appreciated the funereal tempo set by pianist Wolff, not to mention the opportunity to growl and grumble through this crooners' fave. On Let It Snow! (143 Records/Reprise), neo-lounge romancer Michael Bublé takes another tack when it comes to cracking the same chestnut, caressing the lyrics from within a womb of strings whipped up by shlockmeister supreme David Foster. The other four cuts on the abbreviated EP shoot for the grandeur of Frank Sinatra, but they generally come up (Bobby) Short.
Then there's Maureen O'Flynn's Operatica: Christmas Classics, which its label, E-magine Entertainment, modestly dubs "the hippest Christmas record ever made." That claim holds up about as well as Kris Kringle's trousers without a belt, but this oddly enchanting album definitely qualifies as strange. On it, O'Flynn belts out "Deck the Hall" and a twist on The Nutcracker called "Nutcrackeratica" in an opera-friendly manner as the backing tracks dispense lovingly mechanized electronica. Whoever came up with this idea was clearly on something a little stronger than frankincense and myrrh.
Little Stars of Bethlehem
As was the case in 2002, most of showbiz's biggest names have resisted the financially motivated urge to enter the Christmas-product sweepstakes so as not to cannibalize sales for their other albums. That leaves the field to performers from the recent or distant past who are hoping to make their accountants feel a little merrier.
A minor exception is Harry Connick Jr., who apparently found a few hours between Will & Grace appearances to crank out the engaging Harry for the Holidays (Columbia). Connick's previous foray into this genre, 1993's When My Heart Finds Christmas, was an erratic platter whose nadir was a hideous "Ave Maria" capable of causing Bible-Belters to give Buddhism a chance. He wisely avoids equivalent pitfalls this time around, turning "Frosty the Snowman" into a New Orleans romp and casually swaying through "I Wonder as I Wander" and "Silent Night." Its title sounds like an advertisement for a straight razor, but the album won't make anyone want to slash his throat.
The same can't be said of Chicago's What's It Gonna Be, Santa? (Rhino). Crappified tracks such as the ultra-cheesy "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and a lounge-ready "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" could eviscerate any goodwill left over from long-ago smashes such as "25 or 6 to 4." Terrible or awful to miserable. A bit more tolerable, but only just, is The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, a Fuel 2000 release by (you guessed it) Jethro Tull. The Pleistocene combo has legitimate folk roots, which it displays on airs such as "Greensleeved" and "Bourée," and bandleader Ian Anderson clips his syllables just as he did in the days of yore on the martial "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow." Too bad ol' Ian's heavy-breathing flute is so omnipresent. After more than an hour's worth of his huffing and puffing, even veteran Tull fanatics may be ready to toss him into a vacuum chamber.
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Yukster Christine Lavin shoots for a younger audience on The Runaway Christmas Tree (Appleseed Recordings) and misses more often than she hits. The track that gives the album its name is -- I swear -- an allegedly wacky tribute to mulching, and "The All Purpose Carol" and "Elves" are like-minded exercises in forced whimsy. Only the sweet harmonies heard on cuts such as "A New Year's Round" will prevent adults from running away. Voices are also the highlight of O' Holy Night: A Drifters Christmas, by Bill Pickney & the Original Drifters (Fuel 2000). The "original" part of the group's moniker is exceedingly debatable, and the production is of the bargain-basement variety. As such, there's nothing to rival the doo-wop majesty of "White Christmas" as done by the really original Drifters. Fortunately, Pickney and his comrades manage to give "Lonely This Christmas" a vintage-soul spin and inject some raunch into "Backdoor Santa." Bend over and say "Ho, ho, ho."
BeBe Winans takes a more somber approach to My Christmas Prayer (Hidden Beach), an effort that shows off his gospel roots. Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas sounds like a born-again Backstreet Boy while duetting on the first version of "My Christmas Prayer," so it's providential that Winans furnishes a second take featuring a throaty relative, Delores Winans. Other highlights include an unexpectedly melancholy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "My Sweet Lord," which puts George Harrison's Krishna ode to cross purposes.
The purpose of Carly Simon is to convince those who purchased last year's Christmas Is Almost Here (Rhino) to shell out for a "2003 Edition" with just two new cuts: a glacially paced "White Christmas" arranged by Burt Bacharach, and "Forgive," a sonic fragment sporting the harp of (shudder) Andreas Vollenweider. Yeah, and maybe you should pay a second time for that fruitcake you picked up twelve months ago, too, since it's probably grown some bonus mold by now. But for God's sake, don't shell out for Mary-Kate and Ashley's Cool Yule (Dualstar/Columbia), a reissue of a 1993 disc built around the untalented twosome of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The twins' prepubescent twittering on "I Do Believe It's Christmas Eve" and other patience-testers demonstrates that their success as children was based much more on packaging than talent. Today, of course, their popularity with kids (mine, anyway) is waning even as it's skyrocketing among sexual deviants with lesbian-incest fantasies. If their clothing line bombs, they can always tongue-kiss at next year's MTV Video Awards...
Is that a Christmas stocking in your pants, or are you just enjoying the holidays?