A Sleighful of Yays and Nays

I don't think of myself as an especially sentimental sort, and Lord knows I'm no Christian, but something about Christmas music makes me all mushy and dopey. Every year for the last decade or so, after the last batch of Thanksgiving chow gets burped into the Tupperware, I drag out my ever-growing pile of Christmas music -- a motley and ragged assortment of singles, albums, and compact discs that I've been amassing since I first heard Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You back in the early Eighties. As an overview of Christmas music specifically and pop music as a whole, the pile works pretty well. It spans the gamut of doo-wop and blues, rock and soul, jazz and gospel, country and rockabilly, and touches on the icons of pop history (Elvis, Louis Armstrong, James Brown) as well as lost heroes (Jack Scott, Nathaniel Mayer, the Voices). I've played these records too many times to count, and some of the 45s and albums snap and crackle from the years of use and abuse. But come December, they each ring with renewed purpose and clarity, from the joy and optimism in Amos Milburn's shuffling "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" to the pain and loneliness of Darlene Love's heartbreaking "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."

Since Christmas music is a highly profitable niche for labels both big and small, each new holiday season arrives with a flood of fresh holiday product, from repackaged collections of oldies to new Christmas efforts from whoever's hungry for a chunk of yuletide dough. I've added some of these items to the pile, and a few are worthy of the esteemed company (such as Alexander O'Neal's My Gift to You, the first volume of A Very Special Christmas, and the O'Jays' Home for Christmas). Too often, though, these new albums are hollow efforts -- the same old songs in a new set of clothes. (And besides, who the hell cares what Mariah Carey can do with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" when the Crystals nailed it masterfully back in '63?) Nevertheless, I survey the new releases every year, hoping -- praying -- that at least one song will cut through the gimmickry and marketing ploys and do the season justice. What follows below is a shopping guide of sorts, an overview of this year's holiday entries plus a Top 40 list of the Christmas songs that have best served me through the years, the ones that wear away at my cynicism and put the holiday in a perspective that works for me regardless of my religious faith (or lack thereof). Maybe they'll do the same for you.

Merry Christmas.

Arthur Lyman
With a Christmas Vibe
(Rykodisc)

Try as I might (and believe me, I have), I find it hard to resist the cheeseball charms of the EZ-listening pablum being marketed to trendseekers these days as bachelor-pad music. In my defense I'll say this: I'm no sucker for a marketing scheme, and kitsch don't mean shitsch to me -- most of this bomb-shelter pop simply sounds good. Case in point: ex-Martin Denny vibraphonist Arthur Lyman's With a Christmas Vibe, a smooth slice of holiday aural wallpaper daubed with Hawaiian flourishes that, at the time, must have seemed mighty exotic to white folks swilling boozed-up egg nog back in the Fifties. Today it sounds like a camp relic with some fine mood-enhancing moments (a stately "The Christmas Song," a slinky "Winter Wonderland"). The reason you need it, though, is "Mele Kalikimaka," a Latin-tinged take on the Hawaiian holiday standard. And don't miss the hidden bonus track, a swing reading of "Auld Lang Syne."

Various Artists
Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity
(Milan)

Well, this one looks good on paper. A multiartist jazz celebration loaded with seasonal standards played by a staggeringly great array of hotshots including Tito Puente, Dave Brubeck, Ron Carter, Lionel Hampton, and many, many more. Trouble is, this tenth-anniversary tribute to the annual event offers only perfunctory readings of your favorite chestnuts. The fire, passion, and fury that Puente, Hampton, et al. usually bring to their work has been diluted here, perhaps for the milquetoast ears of the NPR set (for which this disc is so obviously tailored). You've never heard Brubeck sound so dull, and you've never waited so long for an all-star ensemble like this to bite down hard on the music and tear into the meat. And it never happens. Instead, you're left sitting through this thing like you're at the Christmas pageant of your new boss's daughter -- squirmy, uncomfortable, wishing you were doing anything else.

Quad City
All Star Christmas
(Atlantic/Big Beat)

Here it is, a quick Christmas cash-in from the folks who brought you the ubiquitous bass-driven hit that goes "Whoop." Those in search of seasonal Florida electro-boogie thumpa-thump will find something worthwhile in such hedonist club chants as "What You Want for Christmas" and "White Xmas." Those in search of seasonal club chants that go on forever will rejoice during the remixed versions of said cuts. Since most bass music leaves my heart and my ass decidedly unmoved, I'm searching for neither. So while I may experience a bit of perverse glee in the recasting here of "The Little Drummer Boy" into "Lil' Bass Boi," I got fidgety about midway through my second spin of this nonstop (read: too long) throwdown and retreated promptly to the comfy confines of Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, with my heart and ass moving in accordance. (That's a consumer tip, by the way.)

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