Let’s get down to brass tacks: Holiday music has an extremely short shelf life, even if you are one of the thick-skinned spirited types who breaks out the John Denver and the Muppets record shortly after Halloween. You’ve got one to two months tops to spin some season-appropriate records before they’re packed away with the lights and decorations and tacky sweaters that Grandma gave you.
Beyond the über-serious spiritual hymns of the season, it’s pretty absurd material when you think about it: songs about flying deer, talking snowmen, a subservient elf culture and, of course, that big, bearded guy who delivers toys to every boy and girl within the span of one evening. (We say “holiday music”, but let’s not forget that Christmas dominates the corner of the market like a seasonal Microsoft.) Carol melodies (like “The Star-Spangled Banner”) are nothing more than recycled drinking songs, festive tunes designed for jolly mass recitations. This is not an accident, as alcohol is an essential staple of any good reveler. So, you see, holiday music is both fantastic and booze-tastic, connecting pasts with presents, implying comfort and peace and goodwill, a giant prelude to the promise of the new year.
There’s a copious amount of holiday music out there, a plethora of the stuff released just this year from Clay Aiken and Regis Philbin to Kenny G, Mariah Carey, and Brian Setzer, proggy symphonic abominations and snore-inducing solo piano treatments which would be confusing, given its inherent expiration date, if our country’s proclivity to spend didn’t escalate at the tail end of the fourth quarter. So, as a favor to you, I’ll go through the (few) highlights and (many) lowlights of the 2005 holiday album market, in hopes that I can save you from a disastrous impulse purchase in the checkout line.
Various Artists, Santa’s Greatest Hits (Hip-O)
When it comes to Christmas music, you’re a traditionalist. You don’t have time to get intimate with some precious singer-songwriter’s “new holiday classic” when the hearth is aglow and the stockings are hung, you’re looking for nostalgic familiarity. This is the collection for you: 14 modern-day Christmas standards, covering rock ‘n’ roll (Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock”), Western swing (Gene Autry’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), jazz (Ella Fitzgerald’s “Sleigh Ride”), necessary evils (“The Chipmunk Song”), jolly ol’ Burl Ives (“Holly Jolly Christmas”), and not one, but two Bing Crosby favorites. And let’s face it: your recurring sexual fantasies involving Bing in his Santa’s hat will be the primary motivation behind this purchase.
The Four Tops, The Christmas Collection (Motown)
Yes, Virginia, there is Christmas in hell. This is the soundtrack.
Michael McDonald, Through the Many Winters (Hallmark)
I know what you’re thinking: first Dylan partners with Starbucks, and now Michael McDonald forms an unholy alliance with Hallmark? Is there any shred of credibility that Mickey-D won’t auction off? If you’re waiting for him to make his “comeback” album with either Rick Rubin or Joe Henry producing, that’s the kind of stuff a fool believes. Or maybe you’ve been replaying “What Month Was Jesus Born”, the one song where Mike throws some funk into his jolly trunk. Riding a reggae backbeat, he suddenly turns into Mr. Showbiz himself: “Talkin’ ‘bout Mary’s little baby!” he hollers like he’s testifyin’ with the Tonight Show Band away in a manger. “Rock that immaculate cradle!” you’ll shout in response, and then the manager of the Hallmark store will kindly ask you to leave. Otherwise, this collection of Christmas favorites (and a few nonessential originals) is textbook McDonald: smooth, ballad-heavy, blue-eyed schmaltz, more Schmoozy Brother than Doobie Brother.
Various Artists, A John Waters Christmas (New Line)
This motley collection of obscure gems, hand-picked by the Baron of Bad Taste himself, is just about as perfect as Christmas records get. This one’s got it all: old school soul sides that deserve canonical inclusion (Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva’s “I Wish You a Merry Christmas” is simply divine), foulmouthed redneck swipes at the season’s commercialism, doo-wop, a singing saw, Tiny Tim, and religious fervor as kitsch. And then there’s the collection’s coup de grace: “Santa Claus Is a Black Man”, a funky single that Waters tracked down on eBay after years of searching. Although this was released in 2004, it’s included here in hopes that we can all begin referring to Santa Claus as “Fat Daddy”.
Brian Wilson, What I Really Want for Christmas (Arista)
Wilson must have liked the whole “remake a classic” strategy so much that he decided to do it again. This year, instead of completing the abandoned Smile, Wilson and his crack touring band have essentially re-recorded the best songs from 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. Fans of that record will recognize tunes like “Little Saint Nick” and “The Man With All the Toys”; everyone else will be dazzled by Wilson’s sweet concoction of yuletide favorites with his fetish for rich harmonies. Unlike Smile, What I Really Want for Christmas isn’t an authoritative fulfillment or contextualization of a long-lost masterpiece; it’s just a reheated leftover of a more memorable artifact. Next up: Wilson expands “Kokomo” into a seven-part rock opera about bartenders, marine life, and weapons-grade LSD.
Marah, A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc)
The brothers Bielanko take an unexpected stab at winter wonderlanding with this holiday record, which was released simultaneously with an album of new material. A Christmas Kind of Town has a communal, uninhibited vibe to it in fact, the band’s joined by a host of family and friends on the record’s many songs and skits. The original songs (“New York Is a Christmas Kind of Town”, “Counting the Days (‘Til Christmas)”) blend seamlessly with the standards; at times, it’s not obvious where one ends the other begins. It’s a breezy, slouchy, raggedy, and booze-addled affair, which implies liberal sleigh bell exploitation and a preoccupation with wassailing. Wassailing? Sign me up! In the pantheon of modern Christmas records, this one’s a disheveled cousin, harried like the blustery bustle of NYC in the grip of holiday fever.