Perhaps it's the strong economy or a severe case of pre-millennial anxiety. But whatever the reason, the approaching end of 1999 brings with it a veritable blizzard of seasonal albums -- as many or more than any year this decade. Of course, quantity doesn't always equate to quality, so consider the following look at forty of these discs to be a road map through a yuletide minefield. Step off the path anytime you'd like -- but if you lose a limb or two in the process, don't blame me.
THE STAR SYSTEM
The formula goes like this: Become famous, then record a Christmas platter to generate a gusher of royalties that will, with luck, continue to flow year after year -- or cut a disc during a career downturn in order to get back into the public eye.
In the former category, the chief offender is Jewel, whose Atlantic Records effort Joy: A Holiday Collection is the laziest kind of disc -- one that rips off her fans even as it reveals her to be about as hip as Nancy Reagan. Jewel's defenders insist that she's (giggle) a noteworthy songwriter and (chortle) a gifted poetess, but instead of attempting to prove them right, she juxtaposes imagination-free interpretations of "O Holy Night," "Ave Maria" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" with a "Christmas version" of "Hands," included to gruesome effect on her previous album and two other songs from her pen ("Face of Love" and "Gloria") that are goopy paeans to God in general, not the holiday season in particular. How could she already need money this badly? Is there a financial advisor in the house? More honest in comparison is Universal's 98° This Christmas, by (you guessed it) 98°. These guys know that by the time their average booster celebrates her fourteenth birthday, they'll be left behind, so they've wisely cranked out a thoroughly predictable blend of Christmas covers and swoony contemporary smoochers designed to weaken the knees without bothering the brain in the slightest. There's nothing much to it, but, boy, do Drew, Nick, Jeff and Justin look dreamy on the cover!
Among the offerings by the revivalists, the most turgid is the Straight Way/EMI release Best of the Season, by Anne Murray, an artist who makes easy-listening music that's anything but easy to hear. Best contains 25 selections dominated by predictable selections ("Silver Bells," "White Christmas," "O Holy Night") that she warbles at tempos so slow, the CD seems to take until next spring to finally, blessedly end. The First Christmas Morning, by Dan Fogelberg (Morning Sky) is no prizewinner, either, but Fogelberg deserves credit for a bit more ambition. Rather than simply regurgitate the same old seasonal material, he stirs up a stew of centuries-old airs ("This Endris Night"), original guitar instrumentals ("Winterskøl") and Fogelberg compositions such as the title cut, which he boastfully refers to in his liner notes as "one of the most beautiful melodies I've written." It's also one of the soupiest, but people who still fondly recall the Seventies singer- songwriter era probably won't care. As for the rest of you, run for your lives -- and be cautious, too, about Michael Crawford's A Christmas Album (Atlantic). Still attempting to ride the ebbing wave of popularity that came his way after Broadway's Phantom of the Opera, Crawford trudges through the likes of "The Very Best Time of the Year/It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "A Journey to Bethlehem (A Christmas Medley)" and "Candlelight Carol," all of which are burdened with syrupy strings and cloying choruses. After listening to this album, take a long, hot shower; otherwise, this music may clog up your pores and lead to infections.
Considerably more pleasing is the Reprise Records presentation We Wish You a Merry Christmas, by Take 6, a male harmony combo fallen on hard times; the vocalists manage to imbue "Let it Snow," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and, especially, "Go Tell it on the Mountain" with a swinging R&B essence that will divert the younger set without sending Grandma into cardiac arrest. Too bad the recording's becoming modesty isn't duplicated by Natalie Cole on The Magic of Christmas (Elektra). Having headlined Holly and Ivy in 1994 and contributed to A Celebration of Christmas two years later, Cole is a veteran of this game, but her pairing here with the London Symphony Orchestra is hardly an ideal match. The arrangements of "O Tanenbaum," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" and "Mary, Did You Know" are as overstuffed as Santa's belly, and while the jazzy "Carol of the Bells" and "Twelve Days of Christmas" actually earn Cole points by using overproduction to their advantage, they're outweighed by "The Christmas Song," in which she duets yet again with her dead father, Nat "King" Cole. The first time it was unique, Natalie; by now it's necrophilia.
THE DAYS OF YESTERYEAR
As marketers know, everything old can be made to seem new again -- as long as the timing is right. That's certainly the case with Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, a teeny-tiny EP by Jimi Hendrix on the Experience Hendrix/ MCA imprint. Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys cohorts, drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox, cut the sloppy medley "Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne" during a 1969 jam session, and thirty years later, the flawed but vivid result cuts through most Christmas pap like a chainsaw. The disc is slender, indeed; aside from a short and long version of the medley, the only other tune on hand is "Three Little Bears," a 1968 curio recorded with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell that has nothing to do with the holidays at all. Still, Hendrix-philes and rock lovers in general probably won't mind a bit.
Legacy, the reissue arm of Columbia Records, checks in with a trio of considerably more traditional bestowals. Julie Andrews's imaginatively titled Christmas With Julie Andrews isn't from the singer's early years, when her stage-honed approach had its nimble moments; instead, it dates from 1982 and was clearly intended for middle-aged moms and dads, not their progeny. The orchestration is mighty thick on "In the Bleak Midwinter," "The Holy Boy," "Silent Night, Holy Night" and the obscure "Patapan," and Andrews sounds especially stiff and brittle throughout. Bring your shovel, because you'll have to dig out after this one. Nostalgia is more effectively served by 1959's Holiday Sing Along, credited to Mitch Miller and the Gang. Baby boomers will respond instantly to accordion-heavy tromps through "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," "Must Be Santa" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" as delivered by a frighteningly boisterous male chorus. Sure, it's ridiculous, but in a good way -- and so is First Christmas Record for Children, an early-Sixties compilation highlighted by Jimmy Boyd's lisping "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," Gene Autrey's "He'll Be Coming Down the Chimney" and "The Littlest Snowman" as intoned by Captain Kangaroo -- the original, not the current clone. It's one for the time capsule.
Weirdest of all is the Sixties-vintage The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas, on DCC Compact Classics. By any practical definition, most of this is dreadful, with the Tina and Nancy Sinatra duet "O Bambino (One Cold and Blessed Winter)," Frank Jr.'s "Some Children See Him" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," in which Tina's singing calls to mind the Great Salt Flats, most deserving of abuse. Hell, even Frank Sr.'s showcases are pretty weak. But there's something about the album's unrelenting awfulness that's endearing. Badness has seldom sounded so hilarious.
Growing up is hard enough as it is, parents, so please don't add to your children's burden with Cool Yule, by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who refuse to go away even though Growing Pains, the sitcom that initially foisted these blond twins upon us, was canceled years ago. Neither Mary-Kate nor Ashley can sing worth a lick, so the producers who contributed to this abomination at the behest of Dual Star Records and Kid Rhino continually come up with strategies to protect them; examples include a mostly spoken "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "White Christmas," during which one of the girls says to actual crooner Danny Donnelly, "Hey, Danny, why don't you sing one?" But the Olsens are still in the vicinity of microphones far too often, and on "The Twelve Days of Christmas," they make the Shaggs seem like Maria Callas by comparison. Thank goodness, then, for the TCM Music/Rhino release Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! & Horton Hears a Who!, which both grownups and tots should be able to enjoy. Horton isn't a Christmas tale, but it's an entertaining one that, like Grinch, is presented here in an expanded format, with plenty of dialogue plus separate music tracks. As an added bonus, the liner includes a Q&A with cartoon auteur Chuck Jones, who helped assemble both of the programs that spawned this package. It's one worth opening.
THEY CALL THIS JAZZ?
On occasion, musicians who play something approaching actual jazz get into the yule disc sweepstakes. But this year, the principal entrants, Warner Bros. signees Boney James (the man behind Boney's Funky Christmas) and Fourplay (the perpetrator of Snowbound), specialize in smooth jazz -- which is another way of saying they're closer to being pop instrumentalists than challenging improvisers. Boney's disc offers up a couple of faux-soul vocal tracks ("This Christmas," with Dee Harvey, and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," featuring Bobby Caldwell) and a stinking pile of musical sins, the most egregious of which is the sappifying of the Vince Guaraldi/Lee Mendelson favorite "Christmas Time Is Here." All of it is bad to the Boney. On Snowbound, Fourplay, led by veteran shlockmeister Bob James, doesn't do much better, all but destroying the Walter Becker/Donald Fagen song that gives the album its name, polluting Joni Mitchell's "River" and snoozing through "Away in a Manger." Turn instead to Jingle Bell Swing, a Legacy Records compilation that pits jazz artists who exhibit genuine artistry, such as Duke Ellington ("Jingle Bells," "Sugar Rum Cherry [Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy]") and Miles Davis ("Blue Xmas [To Whom It May Concern]"), against a potpourri of others from compatible genres, most notably Glenn Miller ("Snowfall"), Benny Goodman ("Winter Weather," with Peggy Lee), Tony Bennett ("Winter Wonderland") and Louis Prima ("What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swinging?" and "Shake Hands With Santa Claus"). Smooth, it's not -- and that's good news.
FOR CHRIST'S SAKE
At no other time of the year do contemporary Christian performers have a simpler time slipping messages of faith into the secular world. Usually, though, these folks tend to forget that the Christmas season can be fun as well as holy -- so this year, be grateful that several of them saw fit to include the occasional dash of merriment. Michael W. Smith's Christmastime, on Reunion, is mainly a patience-tester dominated by painful gunk such as "Welcome to Our World," "Hope of Israel" and a "We Three Kings" in which the crowned ones most definitely aren't smoking on a rubber cigar. But at least he throws in "Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells"; although he sings it stiffly, the gesture is appreciated. There's a bit more balance on Point of Grace's A Christmas Story (Word/ Epic), with "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Jingle Bell Rock" partially offsetting icky run-throughs of "O Holy Night" and "Emmanuel, God With Us." However, the four Graces are such lousy harmonizers that they manage to make even "Sleigh Ride" a jaunt to be avoided. As for Amy Grant's A Christmas to Remember (Myrrh), it finds gospel's first crossover queen mating a bouncy "Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away," a fairly unfussy "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Mister Santa," a goofy reworking of the 1954 Chordettes hit "Mr. Sandman," with dreck such as "Christmas Lullabye" and the endless "Agnus Dei." I prefer Agnus Young. Or is that Angus?
CHRISTMAS ALL OVER THE WORLD
Narada Records is best known for its new-age excursions, and a couple of discs analyzed in the next section prove that the company hasn't abandoned this area of specialization. But its Latino Christmas collection is spunky almost as often as it is sleepy. Cuba L.A. is the savior here, putting some welcome island rhythms into "Deck the Halls," "What Child Is This?" "We Three Kings" and "Little Drummer Boy," and Spanish guitarist Chuscales assembles a decent "Jingle Bells." Contributions by Chile's Oscar Lopez and Brazil's Nando Lauria aren't as strong, but that's why your CD player comes with a program button.
That device is less necessary when surveying A Real Irish Christmas (Claddagh/Atlantic). Some instances of empty prettiness can be found here, but more conspicuous are pleasantly ominous tunes such as CRAN's "Seacht Suálc na Maighdine Muire (The Seven Joys of Mary)" and mournful tracks like the liquor ode "Come Fill Up Your Glasses," as well as woozy instrumentals from Tommy Potts ("The Ship Comes Home") and Leo Rowsome ("The Old Man Rocking the Cradle"). Get your Irish up. More quizzical by far is Christmas: Rhythms of the Holy Land, from Desert Wind Music in Salt Lake City, in large part because the fifteen cuts on it don't fully embrace its alleged format. Instead of choosing Middle Eastern songs, producer/musician Alan Scott Bachman pastes percussion associated with the region onto old reliables "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Amazing Grace" and so on -- and to compound the problem, he gives just as much prominence to Western instruments like a Boston Steinway grand piano. It's just a guess, but I doubt Jesus ever took lessons on one of those.
THE GRAB BAG
The Christmas Box, by Paul Cardall, is a more typical project from Narada Records: placid, echoey piano tinkles ("Our Little Angel," "A Change of Heart," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen") that are about as lively as Jimmy Hoffa. Ditto that for David Lanz, a fellow Narada pianist whose CD The Christmas Album is subtitled "A Musical Gift of Comfort and Joy." More accurately, it's pure product -- selections from previous Lanz holiday discs supplemented by three somnolent tunes ("What Child Is This?", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Variations on a Theme From Pachelbel's Canon in D Major") recorded during a 1989 concert. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.
A Taste of Chanukah, on Rounder Records, packs much more musical satisfaction. Featuring Theodore Bikel, musical director Hankus Netsky and the extensive New England Conservatory Jewish Music Ensemble, the long-player is culled from a live extravaganza that served up everything from boisterous holiday favorites ("Oy Chanukah," "The Miracle of Chanukah," "I Have a Little Dreydl") to instructions from Chasia Segal about how to make a really fine potato latke. Save room for seconds. Festival of Light 2, on Six Degrees Records, falls short of this mark because of too great a concentration on Muzaky sorts such as Danny Heines ("Singing Flames") and vile saxophonist Dave Koz ("Memories of a Winter's Night"). But there are compensations -- namely, "I'm Going to Take Off My Shoes," by the Klezmatics with Chava Alberstein, the unexpected "Oh Hanukkah Groove," by the Frank London Big Band and "Feast of Lights," by They Might Be Giants. Whose mothers must be very proud.
GOING UP THE COUNTRY
The proliferation of country Christmas discs is an unmistakable sign that C&W sales are down; when the new stuff isn't flying off the shelves, why not set some holiday songs aside for an even rainier day? That's the apparent philosophy behind Garth Brooks's Garth Brooks & the Magic of Christmas (Capitol). Our Mr. Brooks experienced his first career catastrophe a few months back with his cryptic disc Chris Gaines: Greatest Hits, and he seems to believe that the quickest way to get back in the public's good graces is by rushing something innocuous and reassuring into the record stores -- which is exactly what he's done. His previous Christmas offering, Beyond the Season, came out just seven years back, and it shares three titles with Magic: "Go Tell it on the Mountain," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "White Christmas." Furthermore, the oddities that marked Season, like a mini-play in which the animals surrounding Christ's manger were anthropomorphized, have been replaced by standard interepretations of standard yuletide fare: "Winter Wonderland," "The Christmas Song," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," etc. A couple of tunes rise above that level, including Brooks's gospel arrangement of "Baby Jesus Is Born," co-written by former Denverite Randy Handley (who, thanks to the royalties he'll be receiving, will no doubt have a merry Christmas). But in the main, this is the safest CD imaginable; the weirdest thing about it is the cover, on which Garth seems to be holding Woody Allen's Orgasmatron.
George Strait's Merry Christmas Wherever You Are and Reba McEntire's Secret of Giving: A Christmas Collection, both on MCA, are also sequels of a sort (to 1986's Merry Christmas Strait to You and 1988's Merry Christmas to You, respectively), and the performers obviously know the seasonal drill. Strait's usual good taste in material isn't especially in evidence -- the mawkish talkathon "Noel Leon" is just plain embarrassing, and "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" fits Spike Jones a lot more comfortably than it does lonesome George -- plus, the 28:56 running time bespeaks a certain lack of conviction. But Strait's unquestioned reliability and trademark ease shine through on "I Know What I Want for Christmas" and "Santa's on His Way." McEntire, too, pretty much sloughs off her album (it's just 35:06), and because she's a less skillful performer than Strait, her disinterest hurts more. "One Child, One Day," "The Secret of Giving" and "The Angels Sang" (which sports that favorite holiday music cliche, a children's choir) are real teeth-grinders, and "'Til the Season Comes 'Round Again" seems less like a promise than a threat.
Martina McBride's White Christmas (RCA) is a similar journey to a place most people have been many, many times before, McBride included; the disc duplicates one she put out last year, with the exception of new artwork and a couple of extra tunes ("Do You Hear What I Hear" and "O Come All Ye Faithful.") Worse, it lacks a real country feel: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has a C&W backbeat, but otherwise generic strings and background vocals predominate. Now that she's seen the big city, there's no keeping her down on the farm. New hat Paul Brandt scores higher on A Paul Brandt Christmas: Shall I Play for You? (Reprise), mainly because of his expanded repertoire. In addition to predictable choices like "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night," he and guest star Terri Clark do justice to the Buck Owens/Don Rich chestnut "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy"; a duet with Kim Richey on "Run Run Rudolph" and a jaunty revival of Dave Dudley's obscure "Six Tons of Toys" also make hay. As an added bonus, there's actually some fiddling and pedal-steel playing on the disc. Yee-haw.
Adoptive Coloradan Michael Martin Murphey takes a far gentler tack on Acoustic Christmas Carols: Cowboy Christmas II (Valley Entertainment); with the help of folks such as John McEuen, he treats "The First Noel" and "We Three Kings" so gingerly that they barely register a pulse. Things get a bit livelier on "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and "Joy to the World," sparked by McEuen's peppy banjo, but on the whole, Cowboy Christmas II won't stir any but the lightest sleeper from a long winter's nap. Acousticians looking for more vivacious stuff should turn to the latest from Riders in the Sky, Christmas the Cowboy Way (Rounder). The foursome regularly straddles the fence between Western swing homage and novelty, and when the players move too far in the goofy direction, as on "Side Meat's Christmas Stew," their charms wear very thin very quickly. But "The Christmas Yodel" strikes the right balance, and "The Friendly Beasts," a highlight of the Louvin Brothers' fine late-Fifties Christmas LP, shows that they're capable of playing it straight when the mood strikes them.
Finally, consider country musician/comic Bill Engvall's inexcusable Here's Your Christmas Album (Warner Bros.), a cache full of failed thigh-slappers typified by "I'm Getting Sued by Santa Claus," "Rudolph Got a DUI" and not one but two versions of "Fruitcake Makes Me Puke," which will likely do to you what the aforementioned dessert does to him. Even people who regarded Junior Samples as a comedic genius will probably listen to this only once. I wish I hadn't.
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There are certain collections whose titles alone are capable of striking fear into the hearts of most mortals -- and Touched by an Angel: The Christmas Album (on Epic/550) is certainly one of them. And yet I must confess to liking "If I Can Dream," by series co-star Della Reese, who infuses the composition with a soul/gospel flair that serves as a reminder that she was a nightclub chanteuse long before she was an actress. But aside from Crystal Lewis's spirited "I Still Believe," co-starring neo-gospel figure Kirk Franklin, and the Keb' Mo' blues workout "Jingle Bell Jamboree," the CD is an assortment of mediocrity capped by "An Irish Blessing" as spoken by Roma Downey, who was a nightclub chanteuse only in my nightmares. Before it was halfway done, I felt as if I'd been touched by an aneurysm. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas sports a mighty scary moniker as well, but its main transgression is predictability: Songs include Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Judy Garland's oft-compiled "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," plus well-traveled tunes by Perry Como, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and (eesh) Anita Bryant. The best things about it are its beginning (Mahalia Jackson's "Silent Night, Holy Night") and its conclusion ("The Hallelujah Chorus" by the Roches). If only the middle could stack up.
More horror: A Rosie Christmas (Columbia), a charity disc on which talk-show hostess Rosie O'Donnell inserts herself into songs alongside Celine Dion ("The Magic of Christmas Day [God Bless Us Everyone]"), Trisha Yearwood ("Santa on the Rooftop"), Elton John ("White Christmas") and more. O'Donnell isn't an awful singer, and it is kinda funny to hear her voice given the robot-distortion treatment from Cher's "Believe" on the ultra-silly techno reworking of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," featuring the former Mrs. Bono herself. But what's mildly amusing on her program promptly becomes irritating and intrusive on disc; the only reason Lauryn Hill's "Little Drummer Boy" works is because O'Donnell is so deeply buried in the mix, with the unhappy exception of her noxious spoken intro. And that's not to mention her turns with Elmo from Sesame Street ("Do You Hear What I Hear") and Angelica Pickles from Rugrats ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"). I'd describe that last pair in more detail, but my co-workers don't really need to see a grown reviewer cry. Again.
Fortunately, two R&B workouts managed to turn my tears to joy. My Christmas Album (MCA) kicks off with Rahsaan Patterson's smokin' "Christmas at My House," which recalls prime Stevie Wonder, before segueing into first-rate groovers such as K-Ci & JoJo's "Merry Christmas Baby," Avant's smoldering "Christmas Came to the Ghetto," Mary J. Blige's "Someday at Christmas" and the fiery Youth Edition amalgam "Go Tell It on the Mountain w/Jesus Is Lord." Furthermore, the lesser selections slide by rather than stopping you cold. And while Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Christmas (Rhino) does more looking back than looking forward, its eyes land on plenty of prizes: the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," Isaac Hayes's ludicrously lugubrious "The Mistletoe and Me," the Emotions' cheerfully dated "Black Christmas," James Brown's "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay" and, especially, Rufus Thomas's overtly horny "I'll Be Your Santa Baby," highlighted by the inspirational couplet "What I got for you, mama/It ain't just a toy." To paraphrase the last line from The World Is Not Enough, it'll make you wish that Christmas came more than once a year.