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.
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.)
Despite the bachelor-pad packaging, this is actually a topnotch collection from Capitol's deep archive of adult-pop treasures. Of course, you can't blame Capitol for dressing up this collection to appeal to the martini suckers of the bohemian underground; the label's probably been wondering for years what to do with all those Kay Starr masters. Anyway, this 18-track assortment is studded with gems: Billy May's "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo" is a hilarious holiday essential, and you gotta have Dean Martin's wintertime winner "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." You also won't want to miss the previously unreleased "Cha-Cha All the Way" by the Capital Studio Orchestra. There is some seasonal dead weight here (Back, Lou Rawls, back I say), but you'll forget 'em all once master organist Jimmy McGriff turns "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "White Christmas" into roller-rink swingers. And in this context, even the Kay Starr cut works.
Merry Xmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad
Lounge king Juan Garcia Esquivel checks into the holiday season with a collection of Christmas insanity culled mostly from a long-lost compilation issued back in the early Sixties. If you've heard his two previous reissue outings on Bar/None (Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, Music From A Sparkling Planet), you know what to expect -- bizarro easy-listening soundscapes punctuated by zooming pedal steel and zu-zu-zuin vocal choruses. Discovering the genius of this madcap composer has been the best thing about the whole bachelor-pad revival, and Merry Xmas doesn't disappoint, from the nutty "Here Comes Santa Claus" to the even nuttier "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." Too bad it checks in at a mere 28:23 (including a newly recorded intro and outro by the master).
O Come All Ye Faithful: Rock for Choice
The noise, nihilism, and sweeping bummer vibe of most so-called alternative rock doesn't really mesh with the romantic sentimentality of the holiday season, and most Christmas-flavored alt-rock fails miserably. Take, for example, this desultory, marginally interesting hodgepodge. For every decent moment on this pro-choice benefit disc (Mike Watt with two-thirds of the Nels Cline Trio on "The Little Drummer Boys"), you get two lousy ones (Sponge's yawn-inducing "Christmas Day," Cranes' putrid remake of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"), not to mention unctuous filler by Presidents of the United States of America, Bush, Juliana Hatfield, and Luscious Jackson. And while I may appreciate the idea of Henry Rollins reciting "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" over an audio montage of gunshots and helicopters, I sure as hell don't want it popping up to ruin my holiday.
This Is the Time: The Christmas Album
Or, The History of Holiday Histrionics and Melisma Gone Mad, Vols. One and Two.
Merry Soulful Christmas
A tepid collection of seasonal R&B piffle from the late-Eighties vaults of MCA. I'm not gonna tell you that Gladys Knight doesn't sing like an angel on "When You Love Someone (It's Christmas Everyday)," and I'm not about to convince anyone that Patti LaBelle in her post-Labelle career is an overwrought, overrated hack. But I will say that any album featuring three songs apiece by the Jets and New Edition is every bit as bad as you'd think.
12 Soulful Nights of Christmas, Part One
(So So Def/Columbia)
Another contemporary R&B collection, but this one's as good as Merry Soulful Christmas is bad. It's a little ballad-heavy for my ears, but play it late at night with the lights turned low and you'll discover its abundant beauty. Among the Christmas treats: Alicia Keys's marvelous "Little Drummer Girl," Xscape's supple and sultry "Christmas Without You," and two guys from Jodeci (K-Ci and JoJo) sounding all kinds of horny on "In Love at Christmas." And if you doubt that Gerard Levert is to the Nineties what Alexander O'Neal was to the Eighties (i.e., the soul man able to carry Otis Redding's legacy into the future), check out the sumptuous "Christmas Without My Girl." Then turn the lights all the way out and find your sweetie.
Just Say Noël
Just Say Noël features an alt-rock lineup that will surely thrill the denizens of MTV's Alternative Nation, from Sonic Youth and Beck to XTC and the Posies. Unfortunately, few of them bothered to take much time constructing their holiday creations: Sonic Youth's spoken-word-and-noise cover of Martin Mull's 1973 single "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope" is a self-indulgent trifle, while Wild Colonials' "Christmas Is Quiet" pairs the stridence of Natalie Merchant with the caterwauling of Sinead O'Connor (a wretched combination if there ever was one). And once you hear ex-Revolution duo Wendy and Lisa on the bathetic "The Closing of the Year," you'll never again ask why Prince gave 'em the boot. (Similarly, you'll wonder why Elastica's decidedly non-Christmas "Gloria" is here.) Still, Just Say Noël has some worthwhile moments: Beck turns in some good lines on "The Little Drum Machine Boy," and the Roots do a nice job of deconstructing De La Soul's "Millie Pulled a Pistol On Santa." Also, this is the only place you can find the late street-singing soul genius Ted Hawkins's gorgeous version of "Amazing Grace." And if that's not reason enough to buy it, proceeds from the disc are being donated to the human-rights group Witness. Good cause, average album.
Peace On Earth
If by "Peace," new-age numskull Kitaro means "Slumber induced by boredom," this is the most appropriately titled Christmas disc in the lexicon of holiday music. Pray your Christmas parties never come to this.
The Wave Benders
Holiday Shopping Hint: The Ventures' Christmas Album, indisputably the greatest holiday-surf album ever released and the only one you'll ever need, has just been reissued by Razor & Tie.
Festival of Light
If Israel Saline (a.k.a Irving Berlin) had written a song called "White Hanukkah," things might have been different. As it is, Jews and gentiles alike sing along to myriad Christmas tunes on the radio this time of year, while little popular music has been recorded in celebration of the Jewish winter holiday. (Let's face it, "The Dreidel Song" isn't exactly Top 40 material.) Festival of Light is an attempt to blend the flow of Christmas tidings with some hip Hanukkah songs. Unfortunately, it seems that those responsible couldn't really figure out just what Hanukkah music is, or what it should be. So they took the easy way out with a mishmash that's described in the press material as "music as diverse as the Jewish communities." Although it's spotty, the disc has its moments. Don Byron plays a gorgeous squawking clarinet on an update of a traditional klezmer melody on "Oi Tata." The Covenant's "Kiddish Le-Shabbat" deftly turns a Sabbath prayer into a trance dance, combining the celebratory chants of one Cantor Ben Zion Kapov-Kagen -- sampled off an old 78 -- with synthetic percussion and violin. The Masada Strings Trio with John Zorn and the Klezmatics contribute pleasing instrumentals. There's a general melancholy tone to this whole Festival, especially on schmaltzy new-age numbers such as the Dutch band Flairk's "The Emigrant" and Rebbe Soul's reverberating interpretation of the Hebrew prayer "Avinu," which seem better suited to a film soundtrack. And Marc Cohen's maudlin English version of "Ma'oz Tzur" ("Rock of Ages") is just irritating, as is Jane Siberry's melodramatic wailing on "Shir Amami." Thankfully, Peter Himmelman and David Broza lighten up on the rocking "Lighting Up the World," which is infectious if rather sophomoric. Festival of Light gets points for trying -- it's nice to have at least one Hanukkah album on the shelf. But -- and forgive me, Mom -- I'll probably still be humming "White Christmas" this year.
-- Judy Cantor
The League of Decency
A Swingin' Christmas
Wherein a nuevo big band from Atlanta tackles the North Pole songbook. Results? Eh -- not bad. Good swinging spirits abound, from the bopping take of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to the finger-popping rearrangement of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas." Sadly, nothing here rises above the merely adequate: If you were to stumble into a Buckhead bar on Christmas Eve, I'm sure these guys would rock your block off. Sitting around the stereo, with the holiday hits of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie close at hand, the League of Decency swings off into the oblivion of well-meaning uselessness. Still, a nice effort.
Christmas Eve and Other Stories
One of the nice things about reviewing records is that the record companies send you explanatory press materials with each free CD, so you have some idea of what's in store when you drop that piece of promo plastic into the tray. And sometimes, after reading said material, you don't even have to bother listening to said free CDs. Case in point: Christmas Eve and Other Stories. In the material accompanying this maiden offering by Paul O'Neill, it states that the disc is a "conceptual symphonic rock work," and that the New York City native "shaped his passion for music around the varied sounds he was introduced to while growing up -- from Queen to classical, Yes to Harry Chapin, Broadway musicals to Jim Croce." See? Thanks to the press material, I don't even have to play this to know I hate it.
The Blue Hawaiians
Christmas on Big Island
Retro-kitsch from the bachelor pad's surf-atmospheria wing. Enough already.
Blame It on Christmas! Volume One
Here's a weird one -- a collection of holiday oddities united seemingly for their, well, their oddness. There's Sinatra clone Bob Francis doing his best Chairman's croon on the '61 relic "That Swingin' Manger," the P.S. #14 Marching Band's "The Silent Night's Spangled Banner," and a piece of percussive percolation by the New Havana Rhythm Kings called "The Second Noël" (god only knows what happened to the first). There's also a tongue-in-cheek take on "Jingle Bells" by Rabbie Tev and the Three Weissmen," a polka blowout by the Continentals, and a mariachi take on "El Pochito Pueblo de Bethlehem." Um, whatever.
Frosty the Bluesman
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Never heard of Michael Powers, but this mostly instrumental collection of mostly standards mines the turf that exists somewhere between the sans-vocal workouts of primo Booker T. and the more tasteful guitar heroics of indie rockers such as Rick Holstrom and Anson Funderburg. When Powers strays from the blues, though, things get ugly -- the self-explanatory "Salsa Claus Is Coming to Town," for instance, is Latin boogie as filtered through an elevator speaker. Better to stick with the slinky "Mississippi Strummer Boy."
Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals, and Carols (Atlantic)
Alternately fussy and showy -- a dazzling musician with little tact or restraint -- this young-lion jazz pianist usually leaves me cold. Blessed Quietness, though, is imbued with warmth, sensitivity, and passion. Chestnut summons the barrelhouse ghosts of Albert Ammons and Art Tatum on the rollicking "Jesus Loves Me," and turns in lush, evocative interpretations of "Silent Night" and "The First Noël" that slow-burn like the last coals on a midnight fire.