San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE), La Noche Buena: Christmas Music of Colonial Latin America (World Library)
If haunting, archaic, spiritual hymns are your holiday bag, then SAVAE is where it’s at. These compositions stem from the cathedrals of 16th and 17th Century Colonial Latin America, incorporating the dialects of indigenous Americans and Africans. That’s another way of saying, “You won’t understand a word of this but you’ll wax philosophically about music’s ability to overcome language barriers and inspire joy”. Which is mostly true in this case, even if it sounds totally lame.
The Jigsaw Seen, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen [EP] (Vibro-phonic)
If you’re like me, every year you think the same thing: “Why can’t more Christmas music employ fake sitars and allude to ‘Paint It Black’?” This L.A. band reimagines the titular standard as a slice of ‘60s psych-pop. If you think that sounds ridiculous, their original contribution to the pantheon of holiday songs is even goofier: “Jesus of Hollywood”, which sounds like “Incense and Peppermints” on ‘70s prog pills. This is why Californians have no business making holiday records: their sun-kissed existence just doesn’t provide the appropriate perspective. Until you experience a Nor’easter on a two-lane highway in a scrapheap-bound pickup truck with a faulty heat system, I don’t trust you with my Christmas music.
Reverend Horton Heat, We Three Kings (Yep Roc)
Used to be that bands would make Christmas records like clockwork, parlaying the mass marketing of the holidays into feel-good, yet disposable, promotion. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, and Booker T. and the MGs all released holiday albums, back when our society wasn’t choking on its own irony. As a rockabilly band with a fitted throwback image, the Reverend Horton Heat is the perfect band to get its holiday cheer on and evoke that bygone spirit. We Three Kings is a family-friendly affair no eggnog-stoked songs about backdoor Santas and a sharp reinvigoration of many dog-tired Christmas standards. Best is the band’s evocation of Jack Frostbitten noir: the title track, for example, runs a hoof-trotting bass line atop the roof of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”. When you finally realize that your collection of holiday music is sorely lacking liberal amounts of reverb and echo, We Three Kings will be waiting.
Various Artists, A Very Soulful Christmas (Koch)
The bad news: This collection is a purging of frigid ‘80s soul travesties. Don’t let the tempting list of marquee names fool you. Even Al Green’s early ‘80s disco hangover rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” can’t save the synthetic contributions by the O’Jays, the Stylistics, and the Chi-Lites, which are about as warm and cheerful as a dead-eyed robot with trampoline pants. The really bad news: If you spend Christmas morning in a dentist’s office, this is what you’ll be listening to. Open wide!
Loretta Lynn, The Christmas Collection (MCA Nashville)
Long out of print, Lynn’s 1966 album Country Christmas is finally reissued on CD, albeit with its title and cover homogenized for MCA/Universal’s Christmas Collection series. It’s held up surprisingly well over the years; with the help of the Jordinaires, who sang on Elvis’s Christmas records a decade earlier, it’s one of the better holiday records by a major artist in the ‘60s. Lynn delivers faithful renditions of well-known ditties and carols (“Saaaalver behllls,” she croons in her endearing twang), and even her originals sassy tracks like “I Won’t Decorate Your Christmas Tree” and “To Heck With Santa Claus” sound old-fashioned and comfortable. As for the latter, how can you resist down-home holiday cheer with a vengeful sense of humor?
Judith Owen, Christmas in July [EP] (Self-released)
Just because you’re married to Derek Smalls himself doesn’t give you the green light to record a coffeehouse jazz version of Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With the Devil”. Now, a jazz odyssey version would have been interesting. As it is, Christmas in July‘s insufferably dramatic ballads will even have your mom asking, “Do we need to put you on your medication again?” While it’s true that even the most miserly heart tries a little tenderness around the holidays, no one (no matter how humbugish) should be subjected to such woefully, scat-happy sentimentality. (Please refer to my opinion on Californians making Christmas music elsewhere in this article.)
Various Artists, The Best of Great Voices: The Christmas Collection (Hip-O)
So you leave wine and cheese out for Santa instead of the customary milk and cookies, and your jokes always begin the same way: “A man walks into a performance of Handel’s Messiah...”. It’s safe to assume that you find Rudolph and Frosty nothing but paltry substitutions for Pavarotti, Domingo, and Joan Sutherland. Theirs are but a few of the “great voices” delivering ye olde carols with profundity, gusto, and an authoritative air of antiquity. While you bask in your Masterpiece Theatre afterglow, donning a monogrammed robe and pipe in hand, no Christmas collection will suit your stately constitution better. Also recommended if the inside of your house resembles an Olive Garden.
Various Artists, Merry Mixmas: Christmas Classics Remixed (Capitol)
You’ll be hearing a lot of this kind of thing over the next month, in the Pottery Barns, Gaps, and Cheesecake Factories of the world: inoffensive, chilled-out remixes of jazzy Christmas tunes. It’s called progressive interpretations, cat, can you dig? This Capitol compilation which features Bent, Quantic, and Q-Burns (among many others) tackling the likes of Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee is a toe-tappin’ mixture of classicist source material with contemporary groovetronics. As long as it’s consigned to the background of shopping excursions, tree trimmings, and office parties, Merry Mixmas is an undisruptive perpetuation of the season’s complacency.