Diana Krall, Odetta and more
Various Artists, Christmas Remixed, Vol. 2 (Six Degrees)
Funky Christmas music sho’ nuff turns me on! Sadly, this stuff’s just funked up. The chosen material — Charlie Parker, Jimmy McGriff, Rosemary Clooney is strong enough, but there’s an inordinate amount of dabbling, primping, and preening, not to mention all the horrid synth brass. I would call this a poor man’s Merry Mixmas, but that would be an insult to the poor man.
Diana Krall featuring the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Christmas Songs (Verve)
For sophisticated holiday parties with peppermint martinis and candy cane swizzle sticks, Krall’s record is the kind of classy safe bet to zest up the atmosphere. Her firecracker delivery is a dash of red-hot zing atop the big band’s swinging arrangements, launching favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” into the debonair stratosphere. Christmas Songs has the swanky knack to make you feel like a hundred bucks even if you’re making all your gifts out of duct tape and multi-colored construction paper. Speaking of construction paper, Krall’s this year’s fetching crooner she can “ring-ting-tingle” my sleigh bells any time! Skeetly-bop! Swee-bop!
Steve Lukather and Friends, Santamental (Favored Nations)
The former Toto guitarist is joined by fellow thunder-fingers Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Slash to shred through some holiday tunes it’s like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ vocabulary converted to sweet licks, bro! The playing is all technical whiplash, the rhythm section a cold fusion nightmare, and the arrangements sound like they were cribbed from the music piped into the bathrooms at the QVC studios. If your idea of heaven on earth is an all-night clinic at your local Guitar Center, here’s your key to the kingdom.
Odetta, Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays (M.C.)
The commanding folk legend performs a holiday inspired concert in NYC, running through a wealth of spiritual hymns like “Mary Had a Baby” and “Poor Little Jesus”. She gets a little support from the Holmes Brothers on three songs, but mostly it’s just Odetta and piano. It’s booming, rattling, God-fearing stuff, as far away from the run-of-the-mill commercial fare that you’re bound to find, but its sheer intensity is for the absolutely true believer, not just anyone with a jones for holiday jingles. It is, however, probably the one holiday record with an impassioned swipe at the President. See, political activists celebrate the holidays, just like the rest of us except they keep their fireplaces burning with elaborate effigies of the Bush administration.
Various Artists, Taste of Christmas (Warcon)
Finally, all the kids with pierced lips, flesh-conquering tattoos, and elegantly coiffed bedhead have a holiday compilation just for them. Taste of Christmas, featuring the likes of Funeral for a Friend, the Used, Versus the World, and other bands with angsty names they’ll regret when they grow up, is strong enough for the rest of us, but ph-balanced for they of the eye shadow and ironic T-shirt. So on Christmas Eve, when they’ve shunned themselves to their rooms upstairs, moodily sighing that no one understands them not even in this most (for)giving of times the legions of sk8er boiz have a season-appropriate soundtrack to mope to. Have a whiny, pseudo-punk Christmas! May you dream of stockings crammed with gift certificates to Hot Topic.
Various Artists, Acoustic Christmas (Favored Nations)
Lots of zesty steel- and nylon-stringed flurries populate this collection of holiday tunes by skilled acoustic guitarists. The frenzied tuning acrobatics of Adrian Legg (“Jingle Bells”) and quirky string funk of Greg Koch (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) are impressive enough, but it all feels very new age-y or retirement home-y. But you already guessed that from the title. I believe it was Steve Buscemi who said it best in Fargo: “You know, Jose Feliciano, you got no complaints.”
Donna Summer, The Christmas Collection (Universal)
You thought it couldn’t get any worse than “She Works Hard for the Money”. You were so very wrong. Here the former disco queen turns into a dull lounge act with visions of stale sugar plums festering in her head. Festering sugar plums are always a bad sign, as they often lead to gospel-tinged versions of “O Holy Night”. I’m not sure who she’s appealing to on the record’s cover photo, but one can only hope she’s begging for forgiveness and offering up this drivel as a sacrifice.
Robin & Linda Williams, The First Christmas Gift (Red House)
Nope, not that Robin Williams. This Robin Williams, along with his wife Linda, is a frequent musical guest on A Prairie Home Companion. The couple’s first Christmas album aims to promote the spiritual side of the holiday with a homespun country style. Ergo: mornings are “morns”, shotgun shells are used for tree decoration, and a cover of Steve Earle’s “Nothing but a Child” reminds us that Copperhead Road was pretty rotten. I know, I know: if only it were that Robin Williams.
Various Artists, A Skaggs Family Christmas (Skaggs Family)
Relax: this one’s Wal-Mart approved for the whole(some) family. The Skaggs team up with the Whites to form a country supergroup of resilient moral fiber. The families’ renditions are delivered in various stylistic guises bluegrass, Celtic, folk all generously enveloped in suffocating layers of new traditionalism and evangelical righteousness. Cheryl White’s excruciatingly maudlin “Mary, Did You Know” and Buck White’s spoken word tale “The Christmas Guest” are so self-involved and vehemently deadpan that they’re interpretable as unintentional comedies. This is why that whole “right to bear arms” argument makes sense sometimes: if carolers turn up on your doorstep with this kind of repertoire, you should possess the necessary tools to scare them off.