By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
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.
With a Christmas Vibe
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."
Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity
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.
All Star Christmas
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.)