Music News

Christmas Packages

Most boomers grew up in households that were Christmas-album deprived. Their parents had only a couple of seasonal platters (something by the Boston Pops or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, perhaps, or maybe a promotional sampler or two they'd picked up at the neighborhood B.F. Goodrich tire store), and they played them year after year after year. But that's hardly the case today. It's common for Nineties families to own a slew of yuletide discs, and a lot of consumers feel obligated to add to their collections on an annual basis. As a result, executives at labels large and small view holiday recordings as found money--a way to make certain they can afford plenty of champagne on New Year's Eve.

This year, another avalanche of holly-jolly product has descended upon retailers--some of it delightful, much of it deadly. The following survey of more than thirty new discs is intended to help you determine what's worth opening and what should be left under the tree.

The lords of industry have been pushing the swing revival for quite a while now, and they show no signs of stopping. But because the style emphasizes bright, cheerful sounds over the soupy sentimentality that gives so much Christmas music a disagreeable aftertaste, it makes for a good fit with the season. Yule B' Swingin', from Hip-O, Universal's reissue arm, shows why: It's a straight-from-the-vault effort that resurrects some worthy performances. Louis Prima's "What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swinging?" is pleasantly lascivious, Glenn Miller's "Jingle Bells" and Ralph Marterie's "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus" are bouncy and boisterous, and Peggy Lee's "Ring Those Christmas Bells" is flat-out strange: She chirps "Some folks like to hear a Christmas song/But I like Christmas bells that go ding-dong" with the full knowledge that she's making no sense at all. Croon & Swoon: A Classic Christmas (Repeat/Relativity) is less cheeky by comparison thanks to an overly generous serving of cheese. Johnny Mathis's "Winter Wonderland" requires heavy sledding, Mabel Mercer's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" lasts about a week too long, and a little Perry Como goes a long way. But Judy Garland's unexpectedly gloomy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will go over well with members of the Lonely Hearts Club, and Gene Autry's two entries--"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman"--should leave most listeners wishing that he hadn't just left for the last roundup.

Swingin' Christmas, a collection issued by Daddy-O/Royalty Records, a New York-based indie, is something else entirely--an attempt to maximize profits by focusing on all but unknown bands. Five acts are featured here (Heavenly 7, Ron Sunshine & Full Swing, Flipped Fedoras, Swingtips and Set 'Em Up Joe), but they're pretty much interchangeable. The vocalists are all males whose singing tries to bridge the gap between homage and camp; the arrangements opt for showiness over subtlety; and the performances either skirt the edge of novelty or topple over it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course: Flipped Fedoras' up-tempo "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Heavenly 7's deliberately dopey rendering of "The Christmas Song" and Set 'Em Up Joe's practically sincere "Silver Bells" click because of their lack of pretense. But those of you sick to death of punchy brass would be better off with the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan (Mammoth). Although the Zippers are among the primary beneficiaries of the neo-swing breakthrough, they're also musically ambitious, and they demonstrate this quality by way of their song choices here: seven originals, two obscure oldies and just one chestnut ("Sleigh Ride"). "Indian Giver" and "Carolina Christmas" are too jokey to last, but "I'm Coming Home for Christmas" and "Gift of the Magi" are fine country laments, and "A Johnny Ace Christmas" is a bluesy ode to R&B's most famous loser of Russian roulette that acknowledges the twisted side of the season--the one many of us know all too well.

Out-of-vogue performers often find it difficult to convince record companies to finance comeback albums filled with original material, but the big-money types know that many of these celebrities from yesteryear still appeal to aging holiday-disc buyers--the kind who don't care about the latest by Method Man. There's one problem, though: The majority of the limelight-starved have fallen out of favor because the public finally discovered how tedious they were in the first place. That's certainly true of Kenny Loggins, whose CD December, available on Columbia, represents the most extreme form of punishment. Listening to the four offerings written or co-written by Loggins ("The Bells of Christmas," "Angels in the Snow," "On Christmas Morning" and "December") is like slowly drowning in maple syrup, and his lugubrious pillaging of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" strips the enchantment right out of the tune. Guaraldi admirers should turn instead to Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits, a charming new Fantasy Records release that matches two versions of the aforementioned ditty with the "Great Pumpkin Waltz," "Thanksgiving Theme" and oddities such as "Joe Cool" and "Surfin' Snoopy." As for Loggins, I suggest that he be put to work entertaining death row inmates. Betcha it would save the taxpayers a bunch of money--as long as the prisoners were supplied with belts and shoelaces.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts