Every year sees the release of new Christmas albums, but 1994 has witnessed an avalanche of them. And they're flying out of the stores--really flying. At this writing, Miracles: The Holiday Album, by that epitome of evil in the late twentieth century, Kenny G, is the biggest-selling CD in the country. The only thing likely to slow its momentum is the arrival of January.
I can't offer a critical opinion of Miracles for a very simple reason: I haven't heard it. You see, Arista, the label for which Mr. G records, never sent me a copy, nor did I call to request one. And I didn't purchase the disc from a local music retailer. It's not that I didn't want to. Then again, I guess it is because I didn't want to.
Besides, I did receive nearly forty seasonal recordings, which are categorized and reviewed below. Some of them are exceptional by any standards, some are listenable but lack inspiration, and some are so dreadful that they could cause Saint Nick to contemplate retirement.
So listen up, Fat Man. These songs are for you.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING To the performers, that is. Because holiday numbers stay in fashion far longer than the latest hot pop trend, Christmas CDs can keep a musician's wallet filled for years to come. It's both an insurance policy against a sudden career collapse and a cash cow outfitted in red long johns with white fringe.
That's no cow on the cover of the Columbia Records platter Merry Christmas, though. That's Mariah Carey, whose new offering is slicker than Sixth Avenue during a blizzard. Yep, the gross national product of Liechtenstein no doubt pales in comparison to the dough spent to bring Carey's latest to the marketplace--but for all that, the songs themselves are only intermittently diverting. The hit single "All I Want for Christmas Is You" gets by mainly because it rips off Phil Spector more overtly than Carey's version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which Spector actually co-wrote. Elsewhere, unfortunately, Carey feels compelled to wail at the top of her lungs in an effort to convince listeners what a unique talent she is. "O Holy Night" finds her zipping up and down her vocal register with the too-enthusiastic mien of a hyperactive poodle even PETA members would enjoy smacking across the nose with a newspaper. Woof.
Neil Diamond may not have Carey's pipes, but his approach to Christmas classics is similar: Belt until you're exhausted, then belt some more. The Christmas Album: Volume II, the Columbia Records sequel to 1993's mega-success, finds this Christian of convenience lowering the boom on those yuletide ditties he didn't bludgeon last time around. Even so, this has its enjoyable moments, especially for anyone thrilled by excess. Diamond's "Joy to the World" and "Winter Wonderland" are over-the-top throat strainers, and "Hallelujah Chorus" is utterly absurd--but in a good way. Alleged tearjerkers such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas" fare less well, however. And whoever convinced Neil to do a reggae version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" should be permanently installed in an asylum. Immediately.
There are no such faux pas on Holly and Ivy, Natalie Cole's new one for Elektra--it's tight and polished, with no room for gaffes. As expected, Cole continues to present herself as the female reincarnation of her dead papa, but she does so expertly: Backed by creamy Fifties-vintage arrangements, she sounds like a reincarnation of Jo Stafford on numbers such as "Caroling, Caroling" and "A Song for Christmas." She doesn't do anything startling with this material, but neither does she wreck it. A thoroughly professional piece of product that you can play when relatives come to visit.
The same can be said of Harmony, the latest from the Scotti Bros. act the Nylons, but it's far less tolerable than the Cole disc. Rather than pumping out mock-rock jive, these vocalists go for sentimentality. "O Holy Night" exemplifies the collection: It's slow and churchy, with a lachrymose solo vocal by Gavin Mosbaugh layered atop lush keyboards. Talk about your rough sledding.
The Sinatra Christmas Album, on the Reprise imprint, is also a relatively saccharine affair, but it's not without its fascinations. Sinatra's versions of these thirteen songs, recorded during the Sixties and Seventies and available for the first time on CD, don't compare with the Christmas recordings he made in prior years largely because tracks such as "An Old Fashioned Christmas," featuring Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, are drowned in strings so thick that Sinatra has problems giving them life. "Whatever Happened to Christmas," a Jimmy Webb tune, is a real curio (the Jimmy Joyce singers ooh and aah through the number like extras in a religious pageant), while "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is wackier; on it, Tina, Nancy and Frank Sinatra Jr. croon new lyrics about gifts they've given to Dad--three golf clubs, two silken scarves and a lavender tie among them. If Ol' Blue Eyes wasn't delivering these tunes, they'd be catastrophes. As it is, they're interesting catastrophes.
Leave it to Tony Bennett, then, to make a seasonal collection that's stood the test of time. Snowfall: The Christmas Album, on Columbia, certainly has proven its mettle; it was originally recorded in 1969 but sounds as vibrant as Bennett's more recent work. Of course, the singer's newfound fame has inspired this rerelease, which is packaged to make it seem fresh off the presses (a contemporary photo of Bennett is on the cover, and its liner notes don't mention when the disc was cut). But why complain? Bennett, who is backed by a semi-full orchestra for most of the album, treats the songs with equal measures of good humor and respect, and he seems to be enjoying himself: His chuckle during "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" seems genuine. So is Bennett himself.
PLAYING THE STOCKING MARKET Who needs a merry Christmas more than an artist whose popularity is waning? Plenty of people, probably, but that's no reason to begrudge performers who try to use the holidays to feather their nests. Especially when those nests--and the cupboard--are bare.
Nevertheless, it's depressing to realize that Graham Parker, whose Seventies albums Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment are so brilliant, must put out a seasonal disc to make ends meet. At least Christmas Cracker, an EP for the tiny Dakota Arts company, is pretty good. "Christmas Is for Mugs" finds a typically grumpy Graham tossing out a sex toy he purchased for holiday fun because "we could not find the spout." Drag. "Soul Christmas" is also entertaining, a wry raveup highlighted by guest vocalist Nona Hendryx. This may not portend good things for Parker's bank account, but it suggests that his creativity is intact.
Judy Collins's Come Rejoice! A Judy Collins Christmas, on Mesa, is less fun, but you had to figure it would be. An a cappella version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" prepares you for the austerity to follow; some tracks have background vocals by various boys' choirs, but mostly Rejoice! is just Judy and a pianist delivering the pristine folk prettiness for which she's known. Apparently being Bill Clinton's favorite singer isn't paying the bills. Given its old-fashioned iciness, this record probably won't, either.
At least Donna Summer's new disc for Mercury, called Christmas Spirit, dares to include emotion in the mix. But don't pick this up expecting the hymnal equivalent of "Love to Love You, Baby." Summer, a born-again Christian, delivers nine traditional numbers and "Lamb of God," which Summer co-wrote, with seriousness, sobriety and reverence. As an entry in the I-want-to-be-Natalie-Cole-too sweepstakes, it's okay, but you heretics probably won't be converted.
As for the Roches, whose 1990 album We Three Kings has been reissued by Rykodisc just in time for Christmas giving, they remember that this season is supposed to be fun. Kings isn't a laugh riot--cuts such as "Joy to the World" and "Away in a Manger" are played straight, with the sisters' harmonies at their edgy best; the results recall the Roches' version of the "Hallelujah Chorus," which they recorded well before Kings was made. But "Sleigh Ride" and "Here We Come A Carolling" drip with humor and delight. A good combination.
Releases that don't fit into any recognizable category can be very, very good or very, very bad. Guess which description best fits these four discs.
A Wild Christmas, which Phil Aaberg and Bernie Krause have put together for the Nature Company, proves that environmentalism can be taken too far. The ultimate in political correctness, Wild is built on recordings and digital samples of animal sounds; for instance, "Deck the Halls" features la-las from a parrot, plus dogs, coyotes, sheep and pigs on lead vocals and a baby mountain gorilla on lead melody. A lot of it sounds like bad synthesizer music, but when the sound of a gibbon bursts through the murk, most listeners won't know whether to laugh or groan.
You'll know exactly how to react to A Soap Opera Christmas, put out by RCA; on a purely musical level, this for-fans-only release is agonizing. Scott Holmes (he plays Tom Hughes on As the World Turns!) does a pretty good imitation of Barry Manilow on his "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Later, Brad Maule (Tony Jones on General Hospital!) does "White Christmas," and damn it if he doesn't sound like Manilow, too. Yikes.
A Hello Dave Christmas, a Mountain Records benefit for Camp Heartland, a summer camping program for children afflicted with or affected by AIDS, doesn't sink to this level, but it's hard to get excited by a not terribly good recording of a sincere Midwest bar band slogging through the standard Christmas repertoire. Nor should kudos be sent to Kofi, whose new Atlantic offering is called A Very Reggae Christmas. With shlockmeister David Foster listed as Reggae's executive producer, you had to figure this wouldn't be a down-and-dirty skankfest, and it's not. Instead, it's smooth pop with a few reggae beats percolating in the background. Jah vote no.
SANTA'S GOT A BRAND NEW BAG Soul and R&B artists have created much of the liveliest holiday music, and The Original Soul Christmas contains a lot of it. A Rhino reissue of a 1968 Atlantic disc, it gets under way with Clarence Carter's joyously naughty "Back Door Santa" ("I ain't like ol' Saint Nick," he sings. "He don't come but once a year") and includes scorchers by Otis Redding ("White Christmas," "Merry Christmas Baby"), Joe Tex ("I'll Make Everyday Christmas [for My Woman]"), Solomon Burke ("Presents for Christmas") and Booker T. and the MG's ("Silver Bells," "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"). This is the way to celebrate.
Joyful Christmas, a Columbia compilation, hews more to the gospel side of the ledger, with less success. Lou Rawls's "Angels We Have Heard on High" and Oleta Adams's "O Come All Ye Faithful" are fairly turgid. In this context, "We Three Kings," from Christian-rap superstars DC Talk, seems most effective. It sounds so much like Stevie Wonder that even Stevie might think it was him.
MIXED BLESSINGS Good news: This year's compilations are most notable for a quality you'd think they'd always have--variety.
The Coolest Christmas, on Oglio, is the most varied of the batch. No theme governs: In between "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (the first number) and Guy Lombardo's "Auld Lang Syne" (the finale) are cuts by everyone from the Alarm to Eartha Kitt. It may not have much consistency, but Coolest lives up to its name thanks to a surf-style "Sleigh Ride" from the Ventures, an Irish "Jingle Bells" courtesy of the Clancy Brothers and George Thorogood's raucous "Rock and Roll Christmas." Weirdest moment: a strangely pronounced version of "Frosty the Snowman" by the Cocteau Twins.
A briefer CD, Atlantic's So This Is Christmas, doesn't make as strong an impression: Among the eight cuts, Hootie and the Blowfish's "Christmas Song," Collective Soul's "Blue Christmas" and Tori Amos's somnambulant "Little Drummer Boy" are all disposable. Other selections are far more memorable. Bad Religion pummels "Silent Night," Victoria Williams presents a gentle "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and eccentric Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston warbles his way through a dangerously off-kilter "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Don't fall off that roof, boy.
A KOOL Colorado Christmas, a locally produced CD (sponsored by KOOL 105 radio) whose proceeds are earmarked for Denver's Family Tree charity, is a more modest album. No Big Head Todds or Samples here: Instead, there's new-age scariness courtesy of Wind Machine ("I Saw Three Ships") and Rifkin ("Spirit of the Season"), as well as harmonizing from the Colorado Children's Chorale and the Arvada Center Chorale. It's nothing to get in a froth over, but Flash Cadillac's "Ghost of Christmas Past" and "Santa's Doghouse Blues," by Chris Daniels and the Kings, are pleasant enough.
Pleasant is not the word for Rhino's Have a Nice Christmas: Holiday Hits of the '70s; it would be more apt to call it campy, amusing and frightening. In spite of the title, most of these songs weren't hits, but all of them are funny to one degree or another. You'd expect that, given the presence of cuts by Martin Mull and Cheech & Chong--but the real laugh riots are numbers that weren't intended as jokes: Bobby Sherman's extremely meaningful "Yesterday's Christmas" and "Grandpa's Christmas Wish," with the late actor Will Geer in character as (eesh) Grandpa Walton.
Rhino is also responsible for Billboard Rock 'N' Roll Christmas, a hit-and-miss project if ever there was one. The Kinks' "Father Christmas," Dave Edmunds's "Run Rudolph Run" and the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" are great; Billy Squier's "Christmas Is the Time to Say `I Love You'" and Foghat's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" are not. Big surprise.
THE DAWNING OF A NEW AGE David Lanz's Christmas Eve, on Narada/ Lotus, is just the ticket for those of you who like buying CDs subtle enough to make you forget that they're playing. Rather than presenting a synthesized dreck showcase, Lanz performs solo piano versions of Christmas fare like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The disc sounds like the kind of thing George Winston would commit to tape if he had just ingested too much cold medication.
Lorie Line's Sharing the Season: Volume II (released in 1993 by Time Line but supposedly more widely available this year) is not as unadorned. She, too, is a pianist, but her playing is supplemented by the work of sidemen with recorders, violins, French horns and more. The versions of Christmas favorites like "The First Noel" are prettified, fey and guaranteed not to startle you out of a sound sleep.
SWINGING AFFAIRS Jazz and blues are musical styles not readily identified with the holidays--unless you're bummed out, that is. But some of the more successful seasonal discs fit into this pigeonhole.
Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues, on Bullseye Blues, gives you the opportunity to spend eleven songs with the master of supper-club blues. Brown and his small combo don't shout, scream or over-emote here. Instead, they make music that's hipster smooth. The Brown signature "Merry Christmas Baby" begins things on the right note, and "Silent Night," replete with liberally altered lyrics, brims with low-down sophistication. Cool indeed.
Less seamless but still worthy of note is Jingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics. This Rhino collection covers a lot of territory--too much, in fact. But once you get past the shock of seeing Charlie Parker and David Benoit on the same CD, set your disc's memory function to fine tracks such as Duke Ellington's "Jingle Bells," Louis Jordan's "Santa Claus, Santa Claus," "White Christmas" by the Charlie Parker All-Stars and Chet Baker's surprisingly jaunty (for him) "Winter Wonderland."
Rick Braun's Christmas Present, released by Mesa, is sort of jazzy but sort of not. Braun, a trumpeter by trade, has put together ultra-tasteful, benign but unexceptional instrumentals that draw equally from the Christmas past and new compositions. The arrangement on Braun's "Christmas in Gorgonia," based on a thirteenth-century Gregorian chant, is intriguing, but overall, Present contains too little Dizzy Gillespie and too much Yanni.
Butch Thompson's Yulestride, on the Daring label, doesn't include either of these ingredients. His versions of everything from "Silent Night" to "Ave Maria" are inspired by stride and ragtime stylings. Slower tempos predominate, which leads to a somewhat samey tone from track to track, but as a whole, Yulestride is a swell change of pace--just the thing to spin when the youngsters are tearing apart anything that even resembles a present.
WHAT A COUNTRY No, Garth Brooks hasn't released another Christmas album. But plenty of his peers--the ones who realized how much money he made from holiday shoppers--are endeavoring to fill the gap.
The Sweetest Gift, by Trisha Yearwood, the female Garth, gets the A-list treatment here; Nashville big shots no doubt expect this to sell well for decades to come. Predictably, though, her takes are a little bit too cautious and studied to really stick in the cranium. She's got the taste to cover Lieber and Stoller's "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" and Hank Snow's nutty "Reindeer Boogie," but she skates over the lyrics instead of milking them for all they're worth. Still, the focus is on treacly heart-raisers such as "Take a Walk Through Bethlehem" and "There's a New Kid in Town." The latter isn't as bad as the Eagles song of almost the same name, but it's close enough.
From its cover, a collection called Christmas at Mountain Stage, from Blue Plate Music, appears to be a series of live selections from the Mountain Stage syndicated radio program. Instead, it mainly plucks cuts from other records, including Kathy Mattea's Good News (one of 1993's best Christmas discs) and the aforementioned Roches reissue. But folkies will enjoy this sampler--particularly Mike Seeger's "Singin' in the Land" and Tim and Mollie O'Brien's fine, rousing "Papa's on the Housetop."
A Tejano Country Christmas, on the new Arista/Texas imprint, has more highs, as well as a few lows. "Mama's Boy," by Joel Nava, and a dull reading of "Jingle Bell Rock" from Rick Orozco fail to give you the jolt of good Tejano music. For that, turn to the experts: Freddy Fender, who turns out a terrific "Blanca Navidad (White Christmas)" and a fine "Please Come Home for Christmas," as well as a bouncy "Frosty the Snowman" that finds him in the company of Flaco Jimenez. These cuts alone make this one worth the price of admission.
So, too, is Seven Gates, a Reprise release by Ben Keith and Friends--but only if you happen to be an aficionado of the bizarre. Keith is a longtime Neil Young associate, and the "Friends" of the title include Young, Johnny Cash, J.J. Cale, Nicolette Larson and other famous cohorts. But rather than a tune-filled singalong, Gates is mainly a roundup of sleepy, twangy instrumentals intercut with the occasional oddity--like "Christmas Time's A Comin," which resembles an outtake from The Basement Tapes, and a twisted version of "Greensleeves" that finds Young and Larson joining the maundering tale after a full three minutes have passed. Eh?
Jerry Jeff Walker also takes the lazy approach on Christmas Gonzo Style, from Rykodisc. Walker doesn't mean "gonzo" in the Ted Nugent/Hunter S. Thompson sense, or so it seems from these relaxed country-swing renditions. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is transformed by an exceedingly deliberate groove, while "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is represented by a version so sloppy that it sounds like a rehearsal. Not a lot of effort went into this, but what the hell.
Nor did John Prine knock himself out on A John Prine Christmas, available again on Oh Boy Records, but he's got enough charm, wit and intelligence to make this a notable selection anyhow. You wouldn't expect a straight holiday presentation from the author of "Chrismas in Prison" (included here), and you don't get one. What you do get is a wonderful "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and the title track, a rambling monologue in which Prine proudly announces that when he was three years old, he ate an entire Christmas ornament. Yummy.
YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING Records for children are seldom that strong, but the good ones can give adults a reason to go on living. One of the discs below won't have you looking up Dr. Kevorkian's number. The other one might.
A Very Merry Chipmunk, credited to Alvin and the Chipmunks and released by Epic, is the one to avoid. Only masochists should subject themselves to the remake of "The Chipmunk Song," in which the aforementioned Kenny G teaches Alvin how to play a saxophone. Aargh! True fact: Andrew Gold, who hit with "Thank You for Being a Friend" in 1978, provides some of the chipmunks' vocals.
Compared to Chipmunk, Kid Rhino's Have Yourself a Looney Tunes Christmas is a masterpiece. With Mel Blanc dead, the cartoon connoisseurs among you will recognize instantly that the voices are a little off: Foghorn Leghorn on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" sounds more like Homer Simpson than the venerable rooster. But Looney Tunes remains relatively bright and vibrant thanks to tracks such as "All I Want for Christmas Is More, More, More," in which Daffy Duck sings "This Christmas I want a real duck-load/To put the `haul' in `haul-i-day'!" Them's good values, son.
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WHEN YOU'RE 64 If all this newfangled stuff is getting you down, why not flash back to the good old days?
Of course, a listen to This Is Christmas by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, on Intersound, may remind you that the good old days weren't always that good. Enclosed herein is the sound you heard on TV church services you were forced to watch when visiting your grandmother. At least this CD is generous, and "A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas," in which classical styles associated with different centuries are juxtaposed, is interesting. Get out your textbooks, students.
Less intimidating is It's a Beautiful Christmas, another Rhino repackage. This one's a virtual duplicate of those collections sold for $2.98 at tire stores circa 1965. You'll want to be sitting by the hearth while turning your ear to Dean Martin's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (who he refers to as "Rudy, the Red-Beaked Reindeer") and Wayne Newton's "Silent Night, Holy Night," which bears a shocking resemblance to something crooned by Mary Hart.
That's entertainment, holiday style.